Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said the United States must play an even greater role as the ‘indispensable strategic power’ preserving stability in the Asia-Pacific, given that many of the region’s countries are in a ‘strategic holding pattern’ amid widespread uncertainty over US foreign policy under President Donald Trump.

Ms Bishop made the comments as she gave the 28th Fullerton Lecture in Singapore on March 13. In an oblique swipe at President Donald Trump’s comments about getting US allies to bear a bigger share of the costs associated with their defence, she said: ‘The United States is obliged to use its power and influence to provide public security goods to the region and not simply assume its narrow national interests.’

During a recent visit to Washington, Ms Bishop met senior members of the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster. They discussed regional challenges and the avenues in which the United States could become more engaged in the Indo-Pacific.

Ms Bishop stressed that many of the region’s nations waiting for evidence the United States and its security allies and partners can continue to play the leading role in preserving regional peace. ‘If stability and prosperity are to continue the United States must play and even greater role as the indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific,’ she said.

In her address Ms Bishop focused on the challenges and opportunities of globalisation in the Indo-Pacific. Her remarks centred on the pillars of democracy, a rules-based order underwritten by the US, and the role ASEAN can play as leader of a rules-based order in Southeast Asia.

Ms Bishop acknowledged that the region faces uncertain times, and assumptions about the continued rules-based order are even less certain following the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. While the region needs to be clear-eyed about the challenges facing it, she urged her audience to remain optimistic and ‘embrace change, rather than fear it.’ She also said history showed that when ‘might makes right’ prevailed, nations were set on paths towards conflict. The better alternative, Ms Bishop argued, was ‘the existing rules-based global order which has served this region remarkably well’ and underpinned Asia’s economic miracles.

Ms Bishop said that ASEAN has an opportunity to lead in this context, through the advocacy of a rules-based order which protects the interests of the larger and smaller nations that makes up its membership. Democracy is one of the core values of the ASEAN charter, and she urged ASEAN members to champion democratic norms and institutions throughout the Indo-Pacific.

She said: ‘ASEAN should never underestimate the moral force it can exert in the form of collective diplomatic pressure on countries that might think or behave differently. We have no option but to preserve and strengthen the liberal rules-based order if peace, stability, and prosperity [are] to continue.’

Ms Bishop noted that globalisation stemming from technological innovation has resulted in a real-time, globally connected market that causes the world to grow ever-smaller. The Indo-Pacific region has welcomed these advances as a way to rapidly increase economic growth. Countries such as Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand have benefited from such changes. China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Bangladesh have since joined this group, and India and Myanmar will likely be next.

Challenges remain, however, as the orthodox export-orientated model faces increased competition. Ms Bishop said: ‘There are now too many countries and too many firms making too many products for too few consumers.’

Even a rising Indo-Pacific cannot negate the coming shortage in global consumer demand, an ingredient central to this export-led growth model. Global technological advances will only intensify competition. Ms Bishop noted that strategic competition is also occurring due to the large increase of wealth throughout the Indo-Pacific. Military expenditure in Asia grew by 5.5% during the 2015–2016 period, outpacing the overall 1% global increase in military spending. By 2020, combined military budgets in the Indo-Pacific will reach approximately US$600 billion, matching the US for the first time.

These rising powers may exert their new found strength to challenge existing territorial or strategic boundaries, or impose their will on weaker states, leading to tension. If this tension leads to conflict, the minister said such an outcome would disrupt ‘the great momentum toward greater prosperity that all countries cherish’.

Questions from the audience centred on Ms Bishop’s meeting with senior appointees of the Trump administration, coalition policy in Iraq and Syria, China’s place in the future rules-based global order, Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper, and the issue of cross-border pollution.

Report by Bradley Wood.

Julie Bishop is the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Australia's Federal Coalition Government. She is also the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party and has served as the Member for Curtin, Western Australia in the House of Representatives since 1998.

This event was chaired by Dr Tim Huxley, Executive Director, IISS–Asia. It took place at the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore.

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Event details

Fullerton Lecture
The Honourable Julie Bishop MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia
The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore
Monday 13 March 2017, 6–7pm SGT