The mood was pretty sombre at last night's annual Lowy Lecture delivered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with events in Brussels on everyone's mind. The presence of Belgium's ambassador to Australia, Jean-Luc Bodson, was acknowledged with a warm round of applause, and the Prime Minister seemed to sum up the feelings of the audience when he promised Belgium Australia's 'love and solidarity'.
Inevitably, then, the PM's speech began on the issue of terrorism, and he continued his reasonably tough rhetoric from earlier in the day with regard to Europe's security failings, saying that 'violent Islamist extremism appears to have reached a crisis point in Europe'. Turnbull also made the rather bold claim that ISIS's terrorist capabilities would be 'eliminated' when it is defeated in Syria and Iraq ('ISIL’s ability to inspire, let alone direct, terrorism around the world will be largely eliminated if its so called caliphate is decisively defeated in the field.')
In response to terrorist incidents, Turnbull now regularly reassures Australians that our surveillance and border controls put us in a stronger position against the terrorist threat than many other countries. 'We have confidence that we know who is coming' into the country, Turnbull said, which does rather imply that the threat is from terrorists arriving from outside Australia, rather than those radicalised at home.
Turnbull's emphasis on resilience as an important facet of our response to terrorism is welcome and overdue. He praised President Jokowi for returning Jakarta's streets to normal within hours of its recent terrorist atrocity. This reflects a view that terrorism experts have been putting for years but which has only recently entered the rhetoric of leaders like Turnbull and Obama, and it sends an important message: though we cannot prevent every attack, through our actions to quickly restore normalcy after a strike, terrorists will know that we will endure and overcome, and that their actions cannot do sustained harm to our societies and economies.
Turnbull soon turned to Asia, where his tone was mostly optimistic. He admitted that the blush had gone off China's boom, but said that the rest of Asia, including India and Southeast Asia, was just getting started. That set Turnbull off on a longer reflection on the special place of India in the region, which got me wondering if his speechwriters had read Melissa Conley-Tyler's post of last week, which pointed out that India had been somewhat overlooked in the PM's rhetoric thus far. Turnbull also spoke at length about Indonesia, saying that strengthening Jakarta relations was a personal foreign policy priority of his. He spoke warmly of his relationship with Jokowi, and I'm sure Indonesia watchers wondered if Turnbull was placing too much hope on an imperfect vessel.
The Prime Minister also looked at the geopolitical dangers of the Asian century, and in a speech that contained few surprises, here he said something that piqued my interest. Speaking of the US-led order that had helped maintain stability and drive economic growth, Turnbull admitted that the shift of economic power to countries such as China was a challenge to that order. A bit later on, Turnbull seemed to go further than merely acknowledging the rise of China when he said Australia had 'embraced the multipolar reality', a sentiment he said was embedded in the recent Defence White Paper.
At face value that is rather startling, because it suggests that Australia is ready to accept China as one pole in a regional system with several great powers (the others presumably being the US, India, Russia and perhaps Japan), all of them of roughly equal standing, which maintain peace and stability in the region through a balance of power. Yet to my mind it is far from clear that the White Paper really does say that. In fact, as others have pointed out, the repeated references to the 'rules-based order' suggest the opposite conclusion. Far from accepting a multipolar order, it implies that Australia is dedicated to defending the existing US-led order.
This continues to be a point of ambiguity and tension in Australian foreign policy, one that is apparent in the speeches of several recent prime ministers and no doubt a few more in future.