Speech as prepared
In the wake of the Paris atrocities and the elusiveness of a strategy to deal with the terrorist caliphate that inspired them; in the wake of on-going challenges to a rules-based international order in Eastern Europe and in our own region; and in the wake of sluggish global growth and the problems democratic governments have with over-spending and over-regulating, it’s easy to be downcast about the world’s prospects.
Yet there is a powerful antidote to despondency and defeatism – and it’s right here before us: in the recent history of Singapore in particular and of our region in general.
With its crowded island and lack of natural resources, Singapore might so easily have been poor; with its ideological conflicts and strategic rivalries, the Indo-Pacific region might so readily have been a battleground; and with their religious and ethnic tensions many Indo-Pacific countries might so often be failing states – yet in the past forty years, our region has seen the fastest-and-largest-ever advance in human well-being.
In China, half a billion people are surging from poverty into the middle class. Hundreds of millions more are making the same transition in India and in Indonesia, the emerging democratic superpowers of Asia. South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have moved from the third world to the first in little over a generation.
And here in Singapore, stability, respect for private property and a genius for business has produced a wonder of the modern world: a marvellous fusion of Chinese culture, British law and Western values.
It’s not all plain sailing. China’s economic growth is slowing while Japan’s is not speeding up. China is flexing its muscles along the “nine dash line”. The United States’ resolve is being tested in our region as elsewhere. And there are local tremors from the security challenges of the Middle East.
Yes, there are problems; but our region’s history suggests that none of them are intractable with the right leadership. Overwhelmingly, the people of our region are more free, more prosperous and more safe than would even have been imaginable just 40 years ago.
There’s been a readiness to adopt new technology and, more cautiously, new ideas; there’s been a preparedness to develop new markets, especially export ones; there’s been a willingness to trust people more with economic freedom, if not always political rights; there’s been a region-wide zeal for education; and – crucially – there’s been comparative peace under the benign leadership of the United States.
I’m proud that Australia has played a big part in our region’s progress. The post-war Colombo Plan educated many of the region’s future leaders in Australia. In 1957, just 13 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Australia’s trade treaty with Japan was a watershed in the reconciliation of wartime enemies.
Subsequently, Australian iron ore, coal and gas powered the economic miracles of Japan, Korea and then China – the greatest and the most remarkable transformation of all.
More recently, my government concluded free trade agreements with Korea, Japan and China as part of our readiness to provide energy security, resource security and food security to our region.
We had the militaries of China, Japan and Korea working together in the search for the missing aircraft MH370. We’ve been part of confidence-building trilateral military exercises with the Chinese and the Americans.
We’ve strongly encouraged and supported the United States’ “pivot” to Asia, involving not just modest forces rotating through Darwin but also the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the world’s biggest free trade deal, because security and prosperity, over time, are inevitably linked.
The pivot, indeed, was President Obama’s acknowledgement of the difference that American leadership can make.
As the world has increasingly discovered, Australia is strong enough to be a valuable partner – and naturally inclined to be a helpful one.
We’re the world’s 12th largest economy; we’re the world’s largest exporter of iron ore; we’ll soon be the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas; and are one of the world’s biggest exporters of beef. We’re fifth in the number of universities in the world’s top 100 and host the fourth highest number of international students.
We’re one of the few Western countries whose military capability is greater now than a decade ago.
Around the world, Australians have a reputation for plain-speaking, for problem-solving, and for respecting reasonable points of view.
My government stood up for the universal decencies of mankind: calling out Russia for its role in the shooting down of MH17 and making the second largest contribution to the international coalition against the terrorist caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Like America, Australia takes no position on the territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas but holds that they should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law. With America, we deplore unilateral alteration of the status quo and assert the right to freedom of navigation on the sea and in the air.
But unlike America, we were happy to join the Chinese-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, especially once its governance arrangements – at our urging – were improved to reflect those of other international institutions.
As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong notes, there’s a lack of “strategic trust” between the United States and China.
That’s a pity because China’s success is not due to communist ideology but to enlightened self-interest, in particular to a most un-communist measure of respect for entrepreneurship.
China’s economic strength should be welcomed – for the good it’s done around the world – and China should be encouraged to carry more of the responsibilities that come with success.
China has traded its way to prosperity under a relatively peaceful world order guaranteed by American strength and benevolence. On this basis, America could as easily feel proud of China’s success as threatened by it.
Eventually, China may become the dominant power in our region; yet, for many decades, thanks to its scientific innovation, corporate creativity and cultural appeal – quite apart from its military prowess – America will remain the key stabiliser in the Indo-Pacific, and by far the world’s most influential and important nation.
China should have more-than-enough domestic challenges to risk adventurism abroad: bringing the rest of its people into a modern economy; liberalising its society, and eventually its polity, while maintaining order; managing its disparate regions; and cleaning up some of the world’s worst pollution.
As well, the regional security architecture – such as the East Asia Summit – should help to keep America and China talking rather than shouting at each other.
Although history shows that great powers don’t usually rise without conflict, the major countries now have such mutual inter-dependence, as well as the power of mutual destruction, that the better lesson is that all of us will advance together – or none of us will advance at all.
Despite the risk of miscalculation, as China and America are rational actors, the future should bring more strategic engagement as much as strategic competition. Crippling tensions in our region are unlikely because even a cold war would be bad for everyone.
By contrast, Islamic State – or the death cult as it’s now increasingly called – thrives on conflict.
Conflict is what it exists for, the bloodier the better; and conflict will continue until it’s destroyed.
That’s why it’s currently the biggest threat to the world’s peace and stability.
In the past few weeks alone, the death cult has blown up a Russian jetliner killing 224 people, killed 130 people in multiple attacks in Paris, killed scores in suicide bombings in the Middle East, inspired the massacre of 14 people in California, and sparked a four day lockdown of Brussels.
This would-be terrorist empire, proclaiming “death to the infidel”, continues to control a territory about the size of Italy in Syria and Iraq and holds sway over some eight million people.
But we have to understand it, as well as to condemn it.
As the declaration of a caliphate shows, Islamic State wants to emulate Mohammed whose early campaigns would have looked just as puny to the great powers of his day.
But repeatedly since the attack on the World Trade Centre, sophisticated modern societies have shown their vulnerability to quite small numbers of terrorists heedless of their own lives and merciless to others.
Islamic State has a simple but deadly message, submit or die; to most, a medieval fantasy, but rational enough to many Muslims based on their scriptures.
Islamic State aims to overthrow every government; and while all governments say they want to destroy it, nearly all have other priorities.
The Saudis and the Gulf states are more fearful of Iran than of Islamic State. The Turks are more concerned about the Kurds. The Iranians and the Russians are more interested in propping up Assad.
The Americans want to destroy Islamic State but not if it means indirectly helping Assad or US combat casualties. The French want to wage “pitiless war” but not to commit ground troops.
While every government has hard-to-meet preconditions for more effective action, Islamic State holds its key centres, inspires copycat movements in the ungoverned spaces of Libya, Nigeria, Yemen and Afghanistan and urges its supporters everywhere to kill any infidel they can.
The Sunnis of the caliphate, so far, are as frightened of the Shiite militia as they are of the death cult’s crucifixtions, beheadings, mass executions and sexual slavery.
The Middle East remains a witches’ brew of complexity and danger where nothing ends well – but it’s still everyone’s business.
Yes, intervening in Iraq and then Libya ended badly; but not intervening in Syria has so far had the most disastrous results of all: a quarter of a million dead; seven million internally displaced; and four million in camps beyond the borders thinking of coming to Europe; while Islamic State posts, on-line, for the world to see, ever more barbaric ways to kill people.
Of course, adding Russians-versus-Americans or Christians-versus-Muslims to Shiite-versus-Sunni and Sunni-versus-Sunni would be a new nightmare.
What’s needed is the right intervention because – left to fester – this metastasising threat to the world’s peace and prosperity can only get worse.
Plainly, the destruction of Islamic State will need to involve Sunni forces. Plainly any longer-term settlement in Syria and Iraq will need to accommodate all the significant minorities.
The winner-take-all mindset that has plagued the Middle East can’t continue – but it won’t change without some leadership from the outside.
When President Obama said last year that America could no longer be the world’s policeman on its own, I said that Australia may not be America’s most powerful or most important ally but would strive to be its most dependable one – as we have been, so far, in the Middle East – because America is the only country with the strength and high-mindedness for this task.
The challenge, as the President has said, is finding a strategy for Syria because without a strategy for Syria, as well as for Iraq, there can be no victory.
As prime minister, I encouraged a US-led summit, specifically to deal with Islamic State, that would have had to involve Russia, Iran and the key Sunni countries as well as the main Western powers.
In the wake of Paris, coordinated action is more urgent than ever; and France, also, now has the moral authority to contribute the leadership that’s needed.
A military victory over the caliphate isn’t a sufficient response to the challenge of militant Islam but it is a necessary one. The alternative is more attacks on decent people going about their daily lives until the resolve is there to escalate the military campaign against it.
That’s the challenge: creating Iraqi and Syrian forces that can destroy the caliphate while respecting non-combatants; and, in the longer term, fostering governments in the Middle East that don’t commit genocide against their own peoples or permit terrorism against ours.
It may involve the commitment of western troops to fight alongside local forces. It may involve the creation of safe havens protected by “no fly” zones. It may ultimately involve a sub-divided Syria (as William Hague has suggested).
What it can’t involve is the persistence of a blood-soaked caliphate killing in the name of god.
It will be a long, difficult and costly engagement, quite possibly the task of decades not years; but before we shrink from such a prospect we should remember how much the world has gained from the US and its allies’ sustained, post-war willingness to stand up for universal values as well as for their own interests.
The latest announcement, of 200 special operations troops to fight in Iraq and Syria, is a sign that America is finally edging towards the action needed to win this war.
So is the British parliament’s support for an air bombardment against Islamic State in Syria.
Here, in the Indo-Pacific, we have seen what can be achieved, in peace, with humane values and the right leadership.
America has not ceased being the “indispensable nation” just because the world is in transition.
Here in Singapore, everywhere around us, we see the results of outstanding local leadership that US global leadership has made possible.
Wishful thinking and the search for the safe option didn’t produce a large measure of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and it won’t in the Middle East either.
Wherever people have the chance, they gravitate to greater freedom and more choice.
People should be free to vote as they wish, to worship as they wish, to work as they wish and to associate as they wish provided they respect the right of others to make different choices.
“Treat others as you would have them treat you” is less a Western concept than a universal aspiration wherever people are free to work out their futures for themselves.
At the heart of a rules based international order is this fragrant idea that we must be ready, now and always, to assert and to defend.
Tony Abbott is the Member for Warringah. He served as the 28th Prime Minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015 and Leader of the Liberal Party from 2009 to 2015. Mr Abbott was first elected as Member for Warringah in March 1994. During the Howard Government, Mr Abbott served as a Parliamentary Secretary, Minister, Cabinet Minister, and Leader of the House of Representatives.
Prior to entering parliament, he was a journalist with The Australian, a senior adviser to Opposition Leader John Hewson, and director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. He has degrees in economics and law from Sydney University and an MA in politics and philosophy from Oxford which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar.
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