Australian High Commission

Australia in a Changing Geostrategic Environment

“Australia in a Changing Geostrategic Environment”

Foreign Policy White Paper Speech


Given by HE Mr Andrew Goledzinowski AM

Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia


Le Meridien Hotel, Kuala Lumpur – 27 June 2018


Transcription of speech as delivered


Ladies and gentlemen and friends, thank you very much. It’s a great honour to be here.

I’m thinking about a country and I want you to guess which country. It’s a middle power, multiracial, in the Indo-Pacific, open trading borders, constitutional democracy, monarchy, Westminster parliamentary system, common law, British military influence and traditions. Any ideas?

There are only two countries in the world that fit that description. You guessed it, Malaysia and Australia. Two natural partners.  I want to come back to this idea of partnership and what it means. In fact, there are two questions that I want to explore in the course of this speech. The first is, what do we mean by international partnership and what might it mean for a newly democratising, reforming Malaysia and how that might signal a change from the past? And the other question – at a time of profound political and social change internally, and serious geopolitical change externally, how might Malaysia’s foreign policy change to meet those two new dynamics? Both of those questions are really about change.

Although the formal subject of my speech is the Australian Foreign Policy White Paper, the real theme, if you like, is change. Prime Minister Turnbull, when he delivered this document in November of last year, said the following words:

Change, unprecedented in its scale and pace, is the tenor of our times.  These are the most exciting times. The times of greatest opportunity, but they are also the times of uncertainty, of risk, indeed of danger.’

My PM was speaking about the Indo-Pacific, but he could also have been speaking about the new Malaysia. This is a very exciting time to be here. It’s exciting for a diplomat. I can only imagine how exciting it is for a Malaysian.  I have had the honour and privilege of meeting with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, and they both said the same thing to me.  They both admitted that the result of the election took them a little by surprise. It’s not that they didn’t think they should win, but they felt that somehow at the last minute it would be snatched from them. But they did win, it did happen. Almost seamlessly, unfazed by the challenge, they have introduced an extraordinary transition. And I think I can say this on behalf of the diplomatic colleagues who like me have been observing this transition. To say it’s been smooth is an understatement. It’s been smooth by any standard, let alone the standard of a country that’s never done it before.

And one of the questions that our capitals have been asking us – I don’t think it’s just Australia, it’s true of others because we exchange notes all the time – ‘people have been wondering, is it sustainable? Is it real?’ The answer we have been giving back is ‘yes, it’s absolutely real.’ The democratic genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The future of Malaysia is yet to be written, but it won’t look like the past. Some people have compared this to the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the transition from military to democratic rule in Indonesia, or any of the current revolutions. I think they are all reasonable analogies. For me, I think about it in comparison to the fall of apartheid because I was there when Nelson Mandela was released and the ANC was unbanned. But we know that the future is always uncertain. Another analogy is the Arab Spring. For many people, some of the promises of that era have led to disappointment. It is really still all ahead for Malaysia to do.

That’s true of Malaysia, and it’s equally true of the Indo-Pacific. We’re seeing now unprecedented shifts in the balance of power. We’re seeing different ideas of governance, rubbing up against each other. Change in the region, like the change in Malaysia, brings risk and opportunities. Therefore, we wrote the Foreign Policy White Paper. It was a fairly significant piece of work for us. It was a bottom-up exercise. It involved months and months of consultations with civil society, with academia, with different agencies of government; also overseas consultations. Eventually it went up to Ministers, then it went up the Prime Minister and it was decided and launched. It’s a rare document. The last time we did this was fourteen years ago. It’s intended to frame Australian foreign policy not just for this decade, but at least out to the end of the next decade. It outlines what matters to us and why. Essentially, it’s for us a blueprint on how we want to help keep the Indo-Pacific peaceful and prosperous in a time of change.

Before going on, I might just take a moment to talk about what the Indo-Pacific concept means to us. I’m not sure if we are the ones who coined the term, but we are the ones who probably use it most regularly. And it’s catching on. I noticed that just a few weeks ago, the US Pacific Command has been renamed the US Indo-Pacific Command.  For Australia, it reflects the economic and strategic reality that the most important part of the world, for us, is embraced by these two great oceans. We have a Prime Minister who wakes up in Sydney and looks out on the Pacific Ocean, literally.  We have a Foreign Minister who lives in Perth, and looks out on the Indian Ocean. So it’s natural for what happens in the Pacific to frame our conception of our interests as much of what happens in the Indian Ocean region and impacts the Pacific Ocean. That shapes our approach, inevitably.

There is another country for whom this should be natural as well. It is Malaysia.  Until recently you had a Prime Minster who lived on the Indian Ocean rim, and a Foreign Minister who lived on the Pacific rim. But Malaysia had one foreign policy that was impacted equally by both.  Malaysia in particular is an interesting example of how these two areas conjoin because throughout history, trade, people and ideas have flowed to and through Malaysia in a way that maybe they haven’t anywhere else. That extraordinary confluence of influences has created the rich multicultural society which Malaysia now is. There’s no audience in the world where an Australian diplomat can better explain why the Indo-Pacific makes sense than to this audience right here.

Let me now tell you what it doesn’t mean for us. We’re not talking about a new piece of regional architecture. We’re not talking about a new organisation, a new secretariat, a new headquarters, a new set of meetings for our ministers to attend. We believe that the systems for preserving the security of this region, the fundamental architecture, are already in place. All we need to do is make sure we can get them to work better.  Importantly, this is another key theme you will see in the White Paper, at the centre of this existing regional architecture is ASEAN. ASEAN is at the heart of it. 

Diplomatically, strategically, geographically, ASEAN convenes the most important forums and the most important meetings that happen in our region, for example East Asia Summit. ASEAN centrality is as important in Australia’s conception of our interests as it is in Malaysia’s. Which is saying a lot, right? Let’s imagine for a moment that Australia and New Zealand magically disappear from the region. Let’s say they pop up again somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. That’s not what I’m hoping for, by the way. But if it were to happen, what would the region look like? Geographically, at least, ASEAN would no longer be at the heart of the region. ASEAN would be at the bottom of the region. And the centre of gravity, of power, would have moved further north. What I’m saying is that there is no change to the architecture of this region that will not diminish ASEAN’s centrality. There’s no change that would improve ASEAN’s position, but any change that I can think of would reduce their influence. And for us that is a problem which we would not like to see occur. Fortunately it’s not going to happen. Australia is here and is here to stay. That was outlined most clearly in March this year when our Prime Minister hosted the inaugural Australia-ASEAN Special Summit. We invited all of the leaders of ASEAN to come to Australia to discuss the ideas outlined in the White Paper. One of the key ideas that the Prime Minister underlined then was that Australia has been and remains a champion of ASEAN and of ASEAN centrality. Just as we’ve always been a champion of Malaysia, which sits at the heart of ASEAN.

Let me give some context to that, particularly to those who are young, or those who are born elsewhere other than Malaysia, about what I mean in terms of Australia’s historical relationship with Malaysia. It goes back a long way. It was forged in particular during WWII, when Malaysians and Australians fought side by side. But that wasn’t the last time that we spilt blood together. Two weeks ago, I was in Ipoh for the 70th commemoration of the start of the Malayan Emergency, as it was then called. It was an existential struggle for Malaysia in which Australia was fully involved. Even I didn’t know that more than 7,000 Australian troops were involved in the Emergency. Until the Afghanistan War, it was Australia’s longest conflict. The Emergency was historically important because from that came, not only Malaysia’s independence but the ‘grand bargain’ – the multiracial compact which became the Malaysian Constitution. It came directly from the experiences and the threat of the Emergency.

And even the Emergency was not the last time that Australians and Malaysians spilt blood together. The young federation of Malaysia was faced with something called Konfrontasi. However it was defined at the time, it was a genuine low-level armed conflict. How did Australia and Britain and New Zealand respond to this threat to the new Malaysian federation? We deployed our land, sea and naval forces for a number of years and it was a serious conflict. The most amazing thing is that Australia deployed these forces not just against the country that was challenging Malaysia, but against our largest and most powerful neighbour. That was a big call for Australia to make. But we made it, because it was the right thing to do.  And flowed from that many things as well, including the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, whose stated aim is to guarantee the security of Malaysia and Singapore, which is still an important function. Its last meeting took place only a few weeks ago.

This week is also the 60th anniversary of Butterworth. It is an airbase that is close to the hearts of Australians and Malaysians. Defence Minister Mat Sabu told me the day before yesterday that his first contact with non-Malaysians was with the soldiers and the airmen of Butterworth because he lived in a small village a few miles from there. We had, at its peak, more than 2000 personnel permanently stationed at Butterworth. These are happier times – there’s only a few hundred there now. But again, those relationships run deep and they last a long time. Not just in the military area. Australia provided the first Governor of Bank Negara, and have provided the three of the first four heads of the Malaysian navy. I could bore you with more statistics, but as I said at the Australia Day address at my first speech in Malaysia, there is no friend like an old friend.

Okay, so what? Shared history doesn’t necessarily mean shared interests, particularly today. But my argument is that in our case it does.  Because Australia and Malaysia and ASEAN have a profound, overwhelming shared interest in the international rules-based order. We have an interest in living in a region which is not governed by strength, but by respect for international law, norms and open markets. Malaysia and Australia as classic middle-powers and trading nations are clear beneficiaries of the system that has prevailed over the recent decades. The rules-based order is that order of alliances, treaties and international organisations, which has been designed over time to prevent the strong from imposing their will on the less-strong. My Prime Minister likes a quote, which he uses occasionally:

‘We don’t want to live in a region where the big fish eat the little fish and the little fish eat the shrimp.’

That’s not what we want. But the rules-based order is not static. It’s a dynamic, evolving system. Every country has a right to participate in its evolution. But it has to be done in accordance with values and in accordance with giving a fair go to everybody.  That’s important. We know what the alternative is. There is an alternative to the rules-based order.  And that is the system that prevailed before WWII, and that is essentially the law of the jungle. The big countries did what they wanted. Thucydides, who was a fifth-century BC Greek historian, had an expression for it. He said the ‘strong do what they can, the weak suffer as they must’. Now that was two and a half thousand years ago. We have to pay attention to the wisdom of the ancients.

There are good ways and there are bad way to settle disputes.  Let me give you an example of a good way. Australia as an island continent has been blessedly free of territorial complications.  But we have had one. When the new state of Timor-Leste came into being, Timor-Leste registered with us a border dispute. They disputed where the line was drawn between Australia and Indonesia in that period before independence. Okay, so we had choices. Australia is a large country; Timor-Leste is a small country. We have a large navy; at that time, Timor-Leste had no navy.  But we went another way. The dispute was referred to conciliation under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and after a long period UNCLOS made its decision. It made its decision in March, just recently. I’ll have to tell you frankly, it was not the decision we were hoping for. But we accepted it. Because that’s what we do. That’s how the system works. So we went from having a dispute to having a settlement.

I’ve been speaking a lot about conflict and geostrategic and military relationships, but the rules-based order is just as important when we talk about wealth and prosperity as it is in the area of peace.  The prosperity of this region has been completely underpinned by the free flow of goods and services and by the rules – particularly those under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation.  Malaysia, as one of the original ASEAN tigers, has overwhelmingly benefited from that. As has Australia. Our trade with Malaysia has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. I fully expect it will double again in the next 10 years, if things keep going as they should. There have been other beneficiaries. India is growing at a fantastic rate and lifting its people out of poverty.  And of course no country has benefited more than China. As China has benefited and grown stronger and more prosperous, that has benefited all of us as well. It’s a tremendous, virtuous circle.  

But looking forward, there is more to do. We’re looking forward to the coming into force of the TPP11, which both our countries have signed.  It is being reviewed by the new Malaysian government, and that’s entirely normal and that’s an appropriate response. But, our analysis is that both countries will benefit. Also the ASEAN economic community, we want to see that built further. And we want to see a meaningful RCEP  - the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - come into being as soon as possible.

In the area of geostrategic conflict, I talked about big fish and little fish. I have a different analogy in my mind when I talk about the economic conflict. That is the rules of the road. I think of the international trading system in the Indo-Pacific as a complex network of highways, freeways, bypasses, smaller roads, bigger roads, all being plied by different vehicles, everything from giant trucks to little delivery bicycles. The thing is, everybody has to agree to abide by those rules. If not, you get chaos and the little ones get run over.

At the moment, the international trading system is threatened by protectionism.  You know that. We can’t open a newspaper without reading about it. Some people call it economic nationalism. I think that is a euphemism.  I think protectionism ultimately is a route to impoverishment for all peoples at a different pace, but ultimately we will all do less well in a situation where the rules of trading, which currently exist, are not upheld and indeed developed. 

I’ve talked about competition in the geostrategic space, and competition in the economic space.  There is a third area of contestability in the Indo-Pacific which is also very interesting if you live in Malaysia right now. That is the contest of ideas. A contest of values, particularly about governance. Just as international norms are under pressure in the trading and geostrategic space, so too is the idea that democracy is the best form of government. 

There was a time when a lot of us assumed that democracy would inevitably prevail. The progress would be uneven. There would be two steps forward, one step back. But broadly speaking, the trajectory would be upwards. That’s actually not happening. Again, I won’t go in to details but I think this audience has a sense of the challenges that democracy is facing in many parts of the world. So it’s so important that in Malaysia, you have bucked the trend. You have actually done something a little bit different. And let me tell you, everyone is paying attention.  It’s an extraordinary thing that you achieved here.  And I believe that makes you geostrategically important.  It makes you a strategically important country. Not because you sit on the Straits of Malacca which controls and channels trade through the region, it’s because you can also now channel ideas in a way that Malaysia couldn’t before. Malaysia can now participate in a conversation that I think it couldn’t participate in before in the same way.

I said at the beginning of this speech that there were a couple of questions I wanted to explore. One about foreign policy, one about partnership.  In the area of foreign policy, I have a mandate to provide advice only to the Australian government. I have no mandate to provide advice to the Malaysian government on foreign policy, nor would I be so foolish as to attempt that.  But we as diplomats, we do have a mandate to ask questions, to explore ideas and exchange ideas.  What interests me is that, as Malaysia Baru realises its domestic settings to be consistent with the rule of law, and the Prime Minister has said that is exactly what Malaysia will do, what role might that same Malaysia take regionally in terms of supporting the rule of law and the rules of the road?  My sense, and this is speculation, is that there is new confidence that goes all the way down to the grassroots and all the way up to the top which will translate into a regional diplomacy that reflects the values that Malaysians have voted for themselves recently.

We don’t know what the future will look like in the region. The only thing guaranteed is that the Indo-Pacific will change, because nothing stays the same. The only questions are: will it change for the better or the worse, and what role will countries like Malaysia and Australia, and the other countries represented in this room, play in trying to influence that change? 

The other issue is partnerships. As countries and regional circumstances change sometimes countries change friends. New partnerships become more relevant, some partnerships become less relevant.  But sometimes, you find that the best partners are in fact the ones that have been with you all along.

Australia does not take this relationship for granted.  We know that the new Malaysia in particular has lots of friends, many of them in this room. But we are leaning-in, deliberately and actively, to strengthen that partnership. Let me give you a few examples.  When I was meeting with Tun Daim, who is the head of the Council of Eminent Persons– what emerged is that the Australian Government now is looking to form its own Eminent Persons Group to come here and dialogue with Malaysia about the new bilateral landscape and how our two countries can work together even more closely.

We were also invited by the Institutional Reform Committee to come and talk to them. We ended up coming with a team of 10 Australians and we talked to them for 90 minutes about their seven areas of core responsibility and left with them a document, which we described as a ‘menu of further ideas’. We did it in a way that said, ‘we have nothing to teach Malaysia, but maybe you can learn something from our mistakes.’ They are now considering that and they will come back to us perhaps to look at particular areas. Emerging from our meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah, we are now organising a bilateral gender roundtable, to look at how gender can impact the entire gamut of social policy in both countries. Our Australian Electoral Commission is ready as soon as a Malaysian counterpart has been named, to talk about electoral reform.  Our courts are now developing packs of judicial training. We had our Chief Justice here recently. We have another two judges coming here in the next few weeks, including the immediate past Chief Justice.

On education, last time I saw Tun Mahathir, one of the first things he said to me was, ‘do you remember what we talked about last time?’ I said ‘yes Tun, education.’ I said, ‘we’re onto it.’

I’ve had one minister here last week and I have another minister here next week. The minister next week, as it turns out, is an expert in parliamentary process. Because we’ve heard the new government is very interested in learning about how parliamentary processes work in other governments. Just in case we’ve forgotten anything, sitting in the front row is our Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for this region, just to see that we haven’t left anything behind. 

If all that’s too subtle, let me tell you Australia is very excited about Malaysia Baru. We are unashamed in saying that we would like to be Malaysia’s partner of choice as it moves forward on this exciting new track.  That’s domestically, but internationally also.  When the time comes, when Wisma Putra and the new Foreign Minister are ready to engage, there will be many more friends who will want to work with Malaysia on all these issues which we’ve discussed.

I’ll leave you with the three thoughts that I take away from this speech and from the Foreign Policy White Paper. First of all, nothing is more important to Australia than a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Secondly, we face challenges to the rules-based order that underpins that stability and prosperity. And thirdly, Australia looks forward to working with Malaysia as a natural and trusted partner.

Thank you very much.