Keynote speech at the Yushan Forum (part II)

Written by Malcolm Turnbull.

Image credit: PB383 by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0.

China’s growing power continues to be the topic of the most intense debate and nowhere more so than here in Taiwan.

In little more than a generation, over 800 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty. The scale and speed of China’s transformation is unprecedented in all of human history. And the wealth that China has created is not limited to its own people. After joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001, it has become the largest trading partner of over hundred nations, including Australia, which sends nearly a third of all of its exports by value to China. 

With its growing market economy and rising middle class, the hope was, the expectation was,  that China would become a more liberal, even democratic, society – and match to some extent the transition that has occurred so successfully in Taiwan.

And yet what we are seeing today is China under Xi Jinping which has become more authoritarian at home and more aggressive abroad. 

Dissent, real or imagined, has been brutally put down in Xinjiang where a million Muslim Uighurs are being re-educated, I use that term advisedly, in detention centres. The freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong in 1997 have been brutally suppressed.

China’s economic growth has been matched by an increase in investment in defence capabilities with the goal of matching and then surpassing those of the United States.

But China’s growing power is not only found in fleets and armies but much more so, more potently in fact, in RMB and dollars. 

Countries that displease China have been threatened with economic consequences. It might be boycotting Japanese retailers; or stopping tourism to South Korea. Or as we have seen in Australia, holding up beef exports and slapping tariffs on wine. On the other hand, and especially in the developing world, billions are being offered for infrastructure development through the Belt and Road initiative. 

And at a grittier level, the United Front Work Department coordinates political influence operations around the world by controlling, in one way or another, almost all Chinese language media outside China, seeking to mobilise support among the Chinese diaspora in countries like Australia and, of course, making donations to politicians as well as ensuring there are lucrative commercial opportunities after they leave office. 

With President Trump’s erratic and often belligerent style unsettling friend and foe alike, there was an opportunity for China to be as unlike Trump as possible – to be measured and conciliatory. To avoid over reaction, and indeed as previous leaders’ had done, play the long game. 

If the goal of foreign policy was to win friends and gradually replace the United States as the most influential power in the region, President Xi’s more aggressive foreign policy, so called “wolf warrior” diplomacy has been quite counterproductive just as the unilateral island building in the South China Sea has served to alienate ASEAN neighbours.. 

The principle my Government followed was simply to assert and defend our nation’s sovereignty and to manage the China relationship respectfully and constructively while at the same time prudently protecting our national security.

My decision to ban Huawei and ZTE from the 5G rollout was not a political one, nor was it dictated from Washington. After careful technical analysis we concluded that because of the virtualisation and distributed intelligence in a 5G network it was not practically possible to mitigate the risk of high risk vendors. The core in other words was no more. The distinction between the core and the edge, radio access network was no longer a viable one in the 5G environment. 

A threat after all is the combination of capability and intent. Capability can take years to put in place, intent can change in a heartbeat. So the Huawei decision was not an accusation that the company was acting in a manner adverse to our interests, but rather a recognition that its capabilities could be so used and, if required by the Chinese government, would be. 

It was the identification of a loaded gun, not a smoking one.

So our response to China’s more assertive approach under President Xi must be to define the boundaries of trust which limit areas of co-operation – telecommunications and critical infrastructure being a good example. At the same time we acted to ensure our laws were updated to protect against foreign interference or undisclosed foreign influence in our politics. 

Many countries, like Russia most notoriously I suppose, seek to engage in that, but in Australia, China’s activities have been particularly notable. These foreign interference, or foreign influence laws, enacted in 2018, were vociferously objected to by Beijing, but without trading inflammatory rhetoric with the Global Times for example we quietly ensured they were passed into law making unlawful efforts by foreign governments or political parties to corruptly, coercively, or covertly influence our public affairs. 

For the future we must maintain our commitment to our democratic values and sovereignty. They should not be for sale. 

It is important to remember too that in the imperial capital they regard deference as their due. The regular threats of trade sanctions must be stared down. To buckle in the face of them will only ensure more to come.  Reaction or retaliation should also be very carefully calibrated. There is no point getting into a cycle of indignation. 

Equally we must not be mesmerised by the great powers. Our region in particular contains many powerful economies including Japan, the world’s third largest national economy, and G20 members South Korea, Indonesia and Australia, as well of course as Japan and China.  

We have to continue to build a multi-polar world and see our region not as a series of spokes ending in Washington and Beijing but as a mesh which is strengthened by multilateral agreements and relationships. 

That is why I made stronger ties with Japan, ASEAN, especially Indonesia and of course India as well, another G20 member, a key objective of my foreign policy, a strategy continued by my successor. Indonesia, for example, is the fourth largest nation by population and within a decade will be the fifth largest national economy, demography is destiny.

Cooperation is key here. We must continue to work together. 

As Taiwan has shown in its efforts to combat Covid-19, real change is possible through collaboration. Particularly where the people trust their government, where their government is open and transparent, where the people are brought in as partners, that enables the type of action the swift action that Taiwan was able to undertake and other countries can only admire, perhaps envy and wish they had emulated. 

That is why events like the Yushan forum are so important.

We must continue to expand opportunities for cooperation and facilitate the exchange of ideas, talent, technologies and social initiatives. 

That is what is fundamental to our democracy. 

That is what we will keep our region strong. 

That is what will ensure the peace and prosperity in our region for the years to come.

That is what will ensure that we don’t move into a world where might is right. Where as Lee Kuan Yew warned back in the 1960s where you have the big fish eat the little fish and the little fish eat the shrimps, that’s not the world we wish to live in whether it is domestically in our own societies or internationally. The rule of law and mutual respect are the keys and that’s why we must work together in the region as a mesh of countries with shared values to protect our sovereignty. 

Thank you very much. 

Malcolm Turnbull was the 29th Prime Minister of Australia (2015-2018).

This letter has been published with the permission of the author. It has been published in its original form without editorial input from Taiwan Insight. The article was first published on the former Prime Minister’s official website and can be found here.

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