Download PDF

The 16th Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 2–4 June 2017.

Friday 2 June 2017, 20:00


Malcolm Turnbull

Prime Minister of Australia


In his introductory remarks before the keynote address from Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue’s opening dinner, IISS Director-General and Chief Executive Dr John Chipman noted that Australia shared with other regional states the characteristic of ‘having its most significant economic relationship with China and its most important strategic relationship with the US’, and had an ‘unavoidable, long-term interest in Asian security’. Australia, he said, faced the region’s changing distribution of power ‘with ambivalent sentiment’.

Turnbull started his address by remarking that the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue had ‘grown to become one of the world’s great strategic gatherings’. Singapore, the location for the Dialogue from its origin 15 years earlier, had been ‘at the very heart of regional strategic policy thinking’ since independence in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, ‘keenly understood that strategic stability does not just happen by itself’; he recognised that all states in the region ‘have a vested interest in each other’s security’. Moreover, Lee recognised that peace and stability provided the ‘essential foundation’ for the region’s ‘remarkable advances in prosperity and freedom’.

The Australian prime minister highlighted the rapid economic growth and human advancement of what he called ‘our region’ over the previous 40 years. However, the binding economic forces of ‘trade, investment and people flows’ had also brought political uncertainty, military capability enhancements and ‘strategic ambition’, he said. Pointing to the impact of the internet and digital technologies, Turnbull said that these had ‘connected local aspirations and grievances with global movements’. In this ‘brave new world’, states could not rely on great powers to protect their interests. They needed to ‘take responsibility for their own security and prosperity while recognising we are stronger when sharing the burden of collective leadership with trusted partners and friends’. Growing uncertainty and instability indicated that all countries needed to play ‘more active roles in protecting and shaping the future of this region’, according to Turnbull.

‘Australia’s vision’, said the prime minister, was for ‘a neighbourhood … defined by open markets and the free flow of goods, services, capital and ideas; where freedom of navigation goes unchallenged and the rights of small states are untrammelled; … and disagreements are resolved by dialogue in accordance with agreed rules’. Turnbull argued that, in order to maintain the region’s dynamism, ‘we must preserve the rules-based structure that has enabled it thus far’. But he added that ‘the economic, political and strategic currents … are increasingly difficult to navigate’.

Turnbull gave special attention to China, emphasising that it will ‘play a larger role in shaping the region’: it was natural that Beijing should ‘seek strategic influence to match its economic weight’. He added, though, that China should develop its ‘leadership role’ in a way that strengthened ‘the regional order that has served us all so well’. China had gained the most from regional peace and harmony, and had the most to lose if these were undermined. Coercion by China would provoke its neighbours’ resentment and reinforce efforts on their part to bolster their alliances and partnerships with each other and with the United States (US). China will succeed by ‘respecting the sovereignty’ of its neighbours, thereby building trust and cooperation with them. According to the prime minister, China had an ‘urgent’ opportunity to build trust by taking more effective measures to curb North Korea’s ‘unlawful, reckless and dangerous conduct’.

‘Consistent US global leadership’ had enabled regional peace and stability, and America’s values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law provided this leadership with ‘its greatest potency’, said Turnbull. He argued that US leadership, commitment and values were ‘more important than ever’. Although the US had withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris climate agreement, ‘we should take care not to rush to interpret an intent to engage on different terms as one not to engage at all’. Indeed, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis had all made ‘early visits’ to the region, and President Trump had made a commitment to attend the East Asia Summit later in the year. Turnbull expressed confidence that the Trump administration and its successors would recognise that US national self-interest demanded more, rather than less, engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

The supposed need for Australia ‘to choose between Beijing and Washington’ was, according to the prime minister, ‘utterly false’: Australia’s foreign policy was ‘determined in Australia’s national interest and Australia’s alone’. Its alliance with the US reflected ‘a deep alignment of interests and values’, but it was not a ‘straitjacket’ for Australian policymaking. President Trump’s request for beneficiaries of the United States’ security commitments to ‘do more militarily and financially’ was understandable, Turnbull said. Australia would ‘pull its weight’ in the region, and was making its largest-ever peacetime investment in military capability, with defence spending projected to reach 2% of GDP by 2020.

Meanwhile, Turnbull noted, Islamist terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were ‘very active’ in the region. Terrorism is a global threat, he said, and is ‘as digital as it is dangerous’. The prime minister said he was ‘keenly alert’ to the risk of a ‘mass-casualty attack’ on Australian victims ‘somewhere in Southeast Asia’. Terrorists returning from Syria and Iraq posed a threat, and transnational collaboration, not least in intelligence-sharing, was needed to combat this challenge.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – 50 years old in 2017 – was the region’s ‘strategic convenor’ and had ‘used its influence over time to support and maintain the rule of law’. Australia continued to work ‘assiduously’ to support ASEAN’s economic-integration and trade-liberalising agenda. The ASEAN–Australia–New Zealand Free Trade Agreement was still ASEAN’s most comprehensive such arrangement. The challenge for ASEAN, argued Turnbull, was ‘to show that the impressive tradecraft of the past can be sustained in a more complex future’. Australia supported a ‘strong, united ASEAN’ that would continue to organise and reinforce institutions such as the East Asia Summit. Turnbull said he looked forward to welcoming all ten ASEAN leaders to the first ASEAN–Australia Special Summit in Sydney in March 2018, and to reinforcing Australia’s strategic partnership with the Association.

Concluding, Turnbull argued that ‘the challenges our region faces … should not overawe us’. Such a dynamic region could solve its own problems ‘so long as we are clear about the principles that guide us: a region where might is not right, where transparent rules apply to all’, he said, promising that Australia would be ‘an enduring, engaged and constructive partner’.


Following his keynote address, Turnbull responded to questions from delegates in the audience. Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army asked the prime minister about the nature of ‘the ideal regional security framework, where the bigger fish, the small fish and the shrimps … can swim freely to make this region peaceful and prosperous’. In his answer, Turnbull emphasised the importance of the rule of law and that states should not ‘use their coercive power to intimidate or bully others’. He went on to say that it was ‘vitally important’ that all powers refrain from unilateral actions that might provoke tensions, such as the ‘militarisation of disputed territories or addressing disputed matters other than through peaceful negotiation in accordance with the rule of law’. It was vital, he said, for China and other powers to ‘to respect the rights of others; the big fish respect the little fish and the shrimps’.

Marc Champion from Bloomberg asked the prime minister whether he was confident that the US administration’s policy towards North Korea would underpin the ‘rule-of-law system’ about which he had spoken in his address, or whether it might result in ‘just another transaction’. Turnbull replied that China possessed ‘overwhelmingly the greatest leverage over the DPRK’, and the ‘eyes of the world’ were on Beijing in that context. While China experienced ‘frustrations and difficulties’ in dealing with North Korea, it had ‘the capacity, the responsibility’ to take up this ‘opportunity for leadership’. Finally, Turnbull was asked if Australia was likely to mount freedom-of-navigation patrols ‘to support the rules-based order and open sea lanes of communication’. He replied that Australia maintained and exercised freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region. Continuing, he said that countries should ‘work harder’ to ensure that the rule of law prevailed.

Closing the session, Chipman offered Turnbull ‘three votes of thanks’: for a speech that set ‘such a constructive tone’ for the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue; for Australia’s ‘tremendous fidelity’ to the Shangri-La Dialogue process; and for Australia’s support for the Dialogue’s Southeast Asian Young Leaders’ Programme (SEAYLP) aimed at building ‘the successor generation of strategists in Southeast Asia’.

Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, Chinese People’s Liberation Army    Marc Champion, Bloomberg
Back to content list