Ambassador's speech on Foreign Policy White paper at the National Academy of Politics and Public Administration
Thank you, Dr Kum-la Keo-oun-kam, Chief of Cabinet of the Political and Administrative Institute, for your welcome to the Institute today.
And thank you, Dr Khum-vi-kit Sim-ma-li-vong, Deputy Chief of Cabinet, for your kind introduction.
This may be the first time that an Australian Ambassador has addressed ta-nGorn.
It is a great honour, and it reflects the friendly relations between Laos and Australia.
This is my third, and final, major address on Australian foreign policy since I came to Laos.
In early 2018, I spoke at the Institute of Foreign Affairs about Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, and I have also addressed the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party Propaganda Office.
Today, in my final address before I depart Laos in November, I would like to highlight how Australia’s foreign policy is helping us navigate the fast moving changes we are seeing in our region and the world.
By doing so, I hope to demonstrate that, despite our differences, Laos and Australia face many similar challenges; share some similar goals and can work together to support a peaceful, prosperous and growing region.
Laos and Australia have enjoyed close and uninterrupted diplomatic relations for more than 68 years - the longest of any country.
In the past three years alone, we have celebrated several significant milestones:
- 45th Anniversary of Australia-ASEAN relations – Australia is ASEAN’s longest dialogue partner;
- 25th Anniversary of the Australian funded First Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge;
- 20th Anniversary of Laos-Australia defence cooperation; and
- we held the 1st ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.
These milestones give a small glimpse into the depth and breadth of our relationship.
In fact, we can trace our development partnership back to 1954 with the first Australian government scholarships for Lao people to study in Australia.
Our scholarships program continues to this day – building people-to-people links and building human resource capacity in Laos. We now have more than 1,300 scholarship graduates - including the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Education. I am sure there are some Australian alumni in this room today, including my host, Dr Kum-la.
Our bilateral development support to Laos is between 40 and 45 million dollars each year.
This support spans a range of sectors vital for Lao PDR’s continuing growth.
We are investing in primary education for Lao PDR’s future generations.
We are building human resources including through our scholarships and other forms of training.
We are assisting sustainable use of the region’s Mekong water resources for Laos and other Mekong countries.
We are supporting the Laos government’s efforts to improve the competitiveness and openness of the business environment, and attract more quality foreign investment to Laos.
I am proud that top quality Australian companies have a long history of investment in key sectors, including banking, mining, logistics and forestry.
These investments are creating jobs, bringing new technology, lifting standards and contributing to Laos’ economic development.
Australian companies are known for their quality of financial, social and environmental standards.
Never before have the Government’s reforms in the business environment been more important than now.
The pre-existing debt and foreign currency challenges Laos faces are magnified by the economic impact of COVID-19.
I encourage Laos to continue the reforms to the business environment after the National Party Congress next year.
Australia is working with Laos to address violence against women, and to support the Lao PDR to meet its international human rights treaty obligations.
In fact, in some respects, our biennial Human Rights Dialogue with Laos highlights the sort of partnership we have – and the style of our engagement.
We do not prosecute our human rights positions or bilateral irritants by shouting at each other or wagging fingers.
Instead, we raise our points respectfully and discuss different approaches and solutions.
We seek to be a trusted interlocutor with Laos with whom we have meaningful dialogue.
That we have built such warm and conducive relations may strike some of you as curious.
After all, our relationship isn’t built on shared democratic values, or culture, heritage or language.
We don’t have Party to Party connections given our different political systems.
Yet, we share a genuinely friendly, constructive and pragmatic relationship that has always been based on mutual respect and open engagement.
Our ‘bridge building’ isn’t just metaphorical.
A little over 25 years ago, Australia gifted and helped to construct the first Laos-Thai Friendship Bridge.
When Australia’s prime minister at the time, The Hon. Paul Keating MP, opened the bridge on 8 April 1994, he said:
“when the people from Thailand and Laos cross this bridge, I hope they will remember the Australian part in building it, and be assured that they have in Australia a good neighbour, friend and partner.”
All these years later, I’m struck by just how well Prime Minister Keating’s words capture the spirit of our bilateral relationship: we help each other in practical ways that make a measurable difference.
Another element has become apparent to me from my time as Ambassador: we are always there for each other in our times of need.
When the Attapeu dam collapsed in Sa-Nam-Sai district in 2018, Australia despatched three C-17 Australian military aircraft carrying immediate medical and humanitarian supplies.
The first plane landed in Pakse within 4 days of the disaster.
Our $3.4m total package of support for Attapeu also helped with education, nutrition and UXO clearance for the affected communities in Attapeu.
Australia also provided support for the southern provinces suffered after flooding following Tropical Cyclone Podul in 2019.
But this support is not just one way.
In late 2019 and early 2020, Australia suffered horrendous bushfires along the east coast - burning for weeks more than 18m hectares of bush and killing 34 people.
During this time, I received a huge number of messages of support from ministers, party officials, business leaders, and members of the Lao community.
This was a source of enormous comfort for the embassy and Australian community.
So, of course, when COVID-19 begun to spread around the world, we were there for each other again.
Laos has done a remarkable job in containing the spread of COVID-19.
I’ve been impressed by the Lao government’s responses that have prioritised public safety to help prevent the disease gaining a foothold here.
The people of Laos also deserve credit too.
The way they have responded to keep their communities safe by implementing the government’s COVID measures has been inspiring.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic rages on.
And while Laos may have escaped the worst health impacts of the virus (so far), the economic impacts are likely to be severe and long-lasting.
The global economy will likely face headwinds for the next couple of years, which will slow our collective efforts to re-start our economies and create desperately needed jobs.
To help Laos’ COVID response and recovery, Australia has so far provided $4.8 million in additional COVID specific development assistance.
We are supporting strengthening of health security, social resilience and economic recovery.
Some examples include:
- A $80 million contribution to the global COVAX facility, which will help to guarantee fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for countries around the world, including Laos;
- training of national and provincial emergency operations centres that coordinate the government’s COVID response;
- our education program supported children to continue learning during lockdown; and
- our Department of Defence shared translated versions of their COVID-19 training package with the Lao People’s Army.
This assistance helped the Government of Laos take decisive and targeted action in the early stages of the pandemic.
But the battle is not over.
As the second wave currently impacting Myanmar makes clear, if we drop our collective guard, the economic, health and welfare impacts could be dire.
We must remain vigilant until a safe and effective vaccine becomes available to all.
As I’m sure you know, a close and enduring bilateral relationship doesn’t just ‘happen’.
Rather, it’s a reflection of the hard work of successive Laos and Australian governments to create the conditions for the relationship to flourish.
But at a deeper level, the shape and nature of any bilateral relationship reflects a set of principles – and a certain ‘world view’ that informs any government’s foreign policy.
For Australia, these principles were last set down in our 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
The White Paper takes as its starting point a recognition that Australia has real strengths to bring to the international table: our values, such as our fairness, equality and openness.
But also our well-earned reputation for taking a practical approach to solving problems.
We get things done by proposing principled solutions, and then implementing them collaboratively.
More specifically, the White Paper sets out Australia’s vision for the Indo-Pacific as a region that is stable and prosperous, where:
- disputes are resolved peacefully in accordance with international law, without the threat or use of coercive power;
- open markets facilitate the flow of goods, services, capital and ideas;
- trade relationships are based on rules, not coercion; and
- sovereignty of states remain paramount, but all nations have a responsibility to protect vulnerable groups from harm.
This vision for the Indo-Pacific is based upon our core values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality and mutual respect.
The term, Indo-Pacific, obviously reflects that Australia is a nation deeply ingrained in both the Pacific and Indian Oceans – it’s where our interests lie.
The term also embraces India and the nations of the Asia-Pacific in a single foreign policy construct.
And it conjures a geopolitical concept that places ASEAN at its centre.
As ASEAN nations said last year in their Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, they want a region marked by peace, stability, security and prosperity.
We do too.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, put it like this: “Australia is focused on backing the rights of all nations, large and small, to make their own decisions – to be who they are.”
Nowhere is this more important to Australia than in Southeast Asia.
As its first Dialogue Partner, Australia is working more closely than ever with ASEAN.
We know that a strong and cohesive ASEAN needs a secure, an open and a prosperous Mekong region, resilient to coercion.
That’s why we’re focused on working closely with the sub-region to promote quality infrastructure and sustainable resource management, and to work together to narrow the development gap, including with Laos.
And from mid-next year, Australia and Laos will step up our engagement on ASEAN matters when Laos becomes our ASEAN country coordinator.
This mean that between 2021-24, Laos will help us navigate ASEAN processes and build support within ASEAN for Australian initiatives.
This is favourable timing.
Laos will be our country coordinator in the years leading up to its ASEAN hosting year in 2024.
Together, we look forward to working closely with Laos to response to the key challenges and opportunities facing the region.
Speaking of which, I’d like to turn to some of them now.
2020 has been a clarifying moment for nations around the world.
The immense speed at which COVID-19 swept the globe demonstrated the extent of our interconnectedness.
And it revealed a host of vulnerabilities that nations are still digesting.
It showed us which of our multilateral institutions were performing well – and others that had lost their connection to the sovereign states they serve.
Ultimately, I think 2020 has demonstrated that the international order is as important as ever.
Yes – there is need for reform in several areas, but the pandemic has brought into stark relief the need to engage one another openly.
And it has underlined that some problems are so complete in their scope and impact that they require concerted global action to address.
Australia believes in positive globalism, where nations like ours engage directly with others – regardless of whether they are larger or smaller - as equal, sovereign nations, in the pursuit of common objectives.
This is the international order we want to protect as having the most legitimate basis on which to respond to the greatest challenges of our time.
We want to keep our global institutions and their bureaucracies accountable, resilient to manipulation or coercion, and in the confidence of their membership, so they can uphold their duties to the sovereign nations that established them on the basis of a common set of rules.
Strong multilateral institutions are needed at the present to respond to COVID, but they’ll also be critical to responding to the many other challenges currently facing the international order.
This is especially relevant to countries like Australia and Laos.
For we live in the Indo-Pacific, which has become the epicentre of strategic competition.
Tensions over territorial claims in particular are growing – examples include in the South China Sea and border disputes between India and China.
Laos itself has also had some recent tension with Cambodia over unresolved border demarcations.
The pace of military modernisation is unprecedented.
Nations face new threats from foreign interference in their political and economic spheres.
Cyber-attacks are increasing in frequency and sophistication.
Disinformation is being used to manipulate free societies.
The trade rules that have allowed us to prosper have not evolved to meet new challenges.
And economic coercion is increasingly employed as a tool of statecraft – including with the use of sovereign debt as a tool of leverage.
Australia cannot, and will not, be a passive player as the world changes in our region and more broadly.
Our Foreign Policy White Paper guides our engagement and makes clear the sort of partner we will be.
Our region expects and deserves nothing less.
We’re transparent about our values and how they inform our foreign, strategic and defence policy.
- our steadfast support for free and liberal trading rules;
- our clear, unequivocal advocacy of resilient, sovereign states that determine their own futures in their national interests and cooperate on the basis of shared interests;
- our defence of individual human rights and freedoms in the face of oppression;
- our promotion of gender equality and social inclusion; and
- our practical and positive vision for an Indo-Pacific in which states and individuals make their own decisions free from coercion and intimidation.
These values are baked into the way we approach the Indo-Pacific region, and guides our engagement with nations, large and small.
Like Laos, Australia looks out at the Indo-Pacific and sees a geostrategic environment dominated by two main countries: United States and China.
We need to carefully balance these relationships as we conduct our foreign relations.
The United States is our closest ally and largest source of foreign direct investment.
It has been the pre-eminent power in the region for over fifty years.
We want to see the US closely engaged in the region.
Meanwhile, China is our largest export market.
Like many countries, our economic growth story has been closely tied to the incredible economic expansion of the Chinese economy over the past 20 years.
We welcome China’s rise as a major economic partner.
China has a role to enhance regional and global stability, commensurate with its new status.
No one wants strategic competition between the US and China to destabilise the Indo-Pacific or impact our prosperity.
Both China and the United States have a special responsibility to uphold the common set of rules that has delivered peace and prosperity over the past fifty years.
That means respecting international law and having a laser focus on the peaceful resolution of disputes, including trade disputes.
Beyond geostrategic competition, we’re also facing a myriad of global challenges that require our focused cooperation and a well-functioning international order if we are to respond effectively to them.
COVID, of course.
But also climate change, competition for resources, threats from emerging technologies, disinformation campaigns, as well as other issues that threaten to permanently tilt our international order of its axis.
Striking the right balance in how we tackle the key foreign and strategic challenges is never easy.
We’ve found that our clear foreign policy principles assist us in this.
As well as our pragmatic approach to finding solutions with a diverse range of partners.
Here, I believe the Australia - Laos bilateral relationship is a model for how countries with diverse political systems, histories, cultures and language can work together to solve the complex challenges of our time.
I’d like to once again thank Dr Kum-la and Dr Sim-ma-li-vong for hosting me today.
It has been a pleasure to share a little of how Australia approaches our foreign policy.
I know that you all will, in your future work, continue to support good and growing bilateral relations between Australia and Laos.
And also ensure that we remain constructive partners in regional and global mechanisms, most importantly the ASEAN forums.
Our relationship is strong, but it will need attention and nurturing to continue to grow.
And it is already strengthening – I am pleased that just last month the Australian Defence Minister informed her Laos counterpart of our intention to place a resident Defence Attaché in Laos for the first time starting next year.
This further demonstrates the importance of Laos to Australia and our every broadening and strengthening relations.
I thank you for your attention and welcome any questions you might have.
Khop Jai Der.