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The 2016 Lowy Lecture: Exciting times ahead on a sombre day

The 2016 Lowy Lecture: Exciting times ahead on a sombre day
Published 24 Mar 2016   Follow @graham_euan

When Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched the 2016 Defence White Paper one month ago he said that 'it sets out a clear eyed and unsentimental appraisal of our strategic environment, the threats and the opportunities.'

Last night’s Lowy Lecture, delivered by Mr Turnbull, was an attempt — perhaps overdue — to put his personal stamp on that appraisal. It was characteristically longer on the opportunities than on the threats.

Mr Turnbull takes his optimism seriously, even though last night’s lecture was arguably the first stump speech of what may be an unusually extended election campaign.

Asia’s growth story is not only a market opportunity, according to the prime minister. Its economic transition also serves a forcing function, requiring greater agility of Australia as it transitions from a commodities and construction-led boom to something more enduring. The prime minister’s economic upside lens was further evident in his efforts to sell the domestic innovation benefits of the Defence White Paper.

In this, Mr Turnbull's first real foreign policy speech on home turf as PM, terrorism was always bound to feature. After events in Brussels, he was obliged to open with it. Sympathies for Belgium aside, there were also some stinging words for 'European governments confronted by a perfect storm of failed or neglected integration', returning foreign fighters and an 'intelligence and security apparatus struggling to keep pace with the scope and breadth of the threat'.

Mr Turnbull contrasted this with the effectiveness of Australia’s security legislation, its integration model, effective border protection — and island geography. That rings true to some level, but also risks hubris, especially given the PM’s admission that Australia’s vital interests depend, in part, on our neighbours' ability to contain terrorism and breed religious tolerance, though Turnbull went out of his way to praise Indonesia’s President Widodo’s efforts in that regard.

On the use of military force, including by Australia, against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Mr Turnbull was notably unequivocal that the ability of IS to inspire and direct terrorism around the world would be 'largely eliminated if its so called caliphate is decisively defeated in the field', although an enduring solution requires a 'political settlement'.

The prime minister then warned, tellingly, that we should not view Australia’s strategic circumstances solely through the prism of counter-terrorism. When Mr Turnbull talks about the need to be 'clear eyed' about Australia’s security environment, an expression he used again last night, that is partly what he is getting at; a clear separation in emphasis from his immediate predecessor’s fixation on Islamist threats.

So, what then of China? [fold] Having laid out the Indo-Pacific’s economic upside so thoroughly, the prime minister seemed almost reluctant to spell out the strategic risks. Mr Turnbull said first that 'we look forward' to the outcome of the Philippines’ legal case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This was an oblique side-swipe to China’s non-participation at the Permanent Court of Arbitration and signalled Australia’s backing of international law in the South China Sea.

The prime minister's direct remarks on China’s actions in the South China Sea were purposefully brief, but pointed. It was 'undeniable', he said, that China’s actions, including creating 'land on water', were stoking regional anxieties, tensions and were therefore counter-productive to China’s interests.

Mr Turnbull also delivered a now customary airing for Xi Jinping’s mindfulness of the 'Thucydides trap' in Sino-US relations. Alas, if there is a rhetorical analogue to this classical metaphorical vice, the prime minister is apparently wedged within it.

He is known to be mindful of the challenges that the US faces in managing its side of the shifting strategic dynamic with China, notwithstanding last night’s backing for the 'continuing vital presence of the United States'. Perhaps that is why, to my mind at least, there was such emphasis on Australia’s thickening defence ties with Japan, India and a 'personal policy objective' to broaden Australia’s ties with Indonesia. It appears Mr Turnbull measures Australia’s diplomatic agility across these vectors, as much as on managing the US alliance relationship, or Australia’s ties with Beijing.

It was intriguing to hear the prime minister, in his conclusion, say that Australia 'embraces' this 'multipolar world'. So much for continuity — bring on the change, it seems.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Wilco737

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