Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has sent an unusually pointed message to China about the importance of democratic institutions, in a speech also declaring that the US needs to play an even greater regional strategic role as China’s strength increases.
Bishop said that “while it is appropriate for different states to discover their own pathway leading toward political reform, history shows that embrace of liberal democratic institutions is the most successful foundation for nations seeking economic prosperity and social stability”.
“While non-democracies such as China can thrive when participating in the present system, an essential pillar of our preferred order is democratic community,” she said, delivering an address in Singapore titled Change and Uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific.
“Domestic democratic habits of negotiating and compromise are essential to powerful countries resolving their disagreements according to international law and rules. History also shows democracy and democratic institutions are essential for nations if they are to reach their economic potential,” she said.
Her comments come ahead of a visit to Australia this month by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
With uncertainty hanging over future US policy under the Trump administration, Bishop highlighted the expanding military spending in the region, and the inevitability of increasing tensions.
China was rising as “an economic partner and geopolitical and geostrategic competitor” with the US and other countries, she said.
“This brings with it its own challenges, not least because China is disputing maritime boundaries in the East and South China Seas as do a number of Southeast Asian countries with respect to the South China Sea”.
Bishop said she had recently discussed regional challenges and “constructive ways” for the US to become even more engaged in the Indo-Pacific in her talks with US Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
“Many regional nations are in a strategic holding pattern and waiting to see whether the United States and its security allies and partners can continue to play the robust and constructive role that they have for many decades in preserving the peace.
"If stability and prosperity are to continue, the United States must play an even greater role as the indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific”.
Bishop said that ensuring peace and stability in a time of intensifying strategic competition was “at least as great a challenge as managing economic competition”.
“Strategic competition is occurring largely due to the dramatic increase in wealth occurring throughout our region”, she said.
“Rising prosperity means that countries naturally seek to expand their sphere of influence and to protect their growing interests.”
Military outlays in 2015-16 in Asia had grown by more than 5.5%, compared with a 1% overall increase in global military spending. By 2020 combined military spending in the Indo-Pacific would probably be more than $US600 billion – for the first time matching military spending in North America.
“Rising powers may exert newfound strength to challenge existing territorial or strategic boundaries or to impose their political will on others. This inevitably leads to rising tensions.” If these tensions led to conflict, this would disrupt the “great momentum towards greater prosperity”.
Bishop said that for our region the US “is a geographically distant power dependent on the acquiescence of Indo-Pacific states to host military assets and is obliged to use its power and influence to provide public security goods to the region and not simply pursue its narrow national interests.
"This provides reassurance to many countries closely observing how larger countries will seek to wield their power and influence in the region.”
The domestic political system and values of the US reflected “the liberal rules-based order that we seek to preserve and defend”, and the importance of these values and institutions should not be underestimated, she said.
“Liberal-democratic institutions such as rule of law rather than rule by executive privilege, civilian control of the military, independent and competent courts, protection of property and intellectual property rights from state appropriation or theft, and limitations on the role of the state in commercial and social affairs remain the prerequisites for stable and prosperous societies, as they are for the creation of a vibrant and innovative private sector.”
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra