Address to the Lowy Institute Track 2.0 Australia-China Dialogue Welcome Dinner

20 November 2023



I am pleased to have the opportunity to be here and to talk to you about the Australian government’s approach to foreign policy and what that means in the China context.


As you will have heard the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister say, it is in Australia’s interests to have a region that is peaceful, stable and prosperous, that operates by rules, standards and norms – where each country can pursue its own aspirations; where no country dominates, and no country is dominated.


Regional balance is what this government is focused on, and it is a foreign policy objective which requires dialogue and communication. Quality dialogue; honest, forthright communication; wisdom. I am very pleased to see this dialogue, between these two organisations, Australia’s and the People’s Republic of China’s premier foreign policy institutions, resume here in Sydney. 


We have been working since our very first day in government to this effect – to renew relationships in our region and contribute to regional peace and stability.


You have seen that close to home in the Pacific, in our efforts in Southeast Asia including the blueprint for long term economic partnership, and in our new development policy to ensure we are a partner of choice in the region.


Australia’s approach also includes continued progress toward stabilisation of the relationship with China, without compromising Australia’s core and sovereign interests.


This was the commitment that we made to the Australian people when we came to government.


The last few years of challenges in the relationship are well known to everyone in Australia and China, and everyone in this room.


We do find ourselves in a different place today. It’s a different place from this time last year, but more importantly, it’s a different place from 15 years ago.


When the Government talks about a stable relationship, we say that very deliberately. We have been clear that this is not a return to a simpler time. Australians are optimists, and their government is too. But we are also clear-eyed and pragmatic. Our aspirations for the region are underpinned by a realistic assessment of the challenges and tensions we all face. 


We know that our region, and our relationships, are not going back to where they were 15 years ago.


We are realistic, too, about the kind of constructive relationship that Australia and China can have today.


Our approach today is to cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, and engage in our national interest. 


As a great power, China works to advance favourable outcomes for its own interests. 

We understand that sometimes these interests will conflict with ours, and with that comes difference and challenge. These realities cannot be wished away or quarantined in some way. But we do believe they can be managed. 

And we believe that dialogue – on the differences as well as the areas of cooperation – is essential.


Having clarity about each other’s expectations and views is the only way on which we can proceed.


It is on that basis we have worked to stabilise bilateral ties including through resumption of leader-level and ministerial dialogue.


It is a good thing that we have been able, through dialogue, to see the resumption of close-to full scope bilateral trade, and that we are continuing to work on removing remaining impediments.  Of the $20 billion worth of Australian exports that had been affected, around $2.5 billion remain subject to some restrictions.

We have done this while working diligently through the WTO, the centre of the international trading system, and through technical negotiations. 


While we welcome the lifting of impediments, we have also encouraged Australian industry to diversify. This means working to diversify Australia’s trade in two ways. Firstly, working to find new markets with trading partners for Australia’s commodities, products and services. Secondly, diversifying what we sell – broadening the range of products and services that Australia trades with the world, particularly by lifting Australia’s industrial performance and strengthening our manufacturing capability and competitiveness.

Both of these diversification objectives will be pursued while seeking to continue the trade normalisation trajectory with China and Chinese business. I was very happy to see our Prime Minister and Trade Minister in Shanghai with 250 Australian firms a fortnight ago, and I was pleased to lead a high-level Australian business delegation to the Bo’ao Forum earlier this year.


For eighteen months you have heard the mantra of ‘cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, and engage in our national interest’.


We are starting to see what the cooperate part of that equation means from Australia’s perspective.

You can see that through the Prime Minister’s visit, and the agreement to pursue greater practical cooperation in a range of areas, including on trade and economic issues, agriculture, climate change and education.

I have some personal experience of the potential of Australia-China cooperation in areas of mutual interest. I travelled to China earlier this year, to Hainan, with a team from DFAT and an Australian business delegation, to the Bo’ao Forum for Asia. It wasn’t my first trip to Hainan.


As an eight-year-old, 40-plus years ago, I took the long flight from Sydney to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong to Guangzhou, Guangzhou to Haikou and then a long drive from Haikou to Basuo on Hainan’s West coast.  My father, an agricultural scientist, led a joint Australia China agriculture project at Gaopoling Model Cattle Farm. I lived there for two years.


That project contributed much in terms of the cattle industry in China- bringing Australian expertise in large scale production, plant genetics, animal husbandry, cattle breeding- at a crucial time in China’s journey in agricultural, industrial and economic development. My father is very proud of his contribution to shared scientific, development, and agricultural goals.


I also am pleased to see Australia and China find ways to work together in the international trade system.


We expect international trade rules and principles to be upheld by everyone. In Australia’s experience, coercive economic actions are at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. Beyond the bilateral impact, these practices certainly undermine the confidence of other trading nations.


Our economic resilience at home is central to our agency in the world.


This was the clear lesson for many of our partners when we discussed and agreed the Joint Declaration Against Trade-Related Economic Coercion and Non-Market Policies and Practices in June this year.


For us, it is essential to have reliable and rules-based trade, exchanges between people and students and tourists, to cooperate on global challenges, while upholding our sovereignty and national interests.


This is why Foreign Minister Penny Wong says Australia’s objective is to shape a regional balance where “no one country dominates, and no country is dominated.”


Words matter in foreign policy, and this second mantra is an attempt to capture the benefits of a region where strategic competition is offset and managed by established rules and by the collective aspirations of the countries of the region for sovereignty, mutually beneficial interdependence, and strategic balance.


As I said, I was in Hainan in February this year for the Bo’ao Forum, and I was struck by Singapore Prime Minister Lee’s contribution in the plenary session: “We should build a dense mesh of cooperation and interdependence, rather than a hub and spoke model, because this will result in a stronger and more resilient region.” 


That is the vision of our neighbours - it should not be a surprise that Australia shares that broad approach and is acting consistently to achieve that outcome.


I have talked about how we do this in our relationship - a more stable relationship between our two countries unlocks the opportunity for a more stable presence and influence on our region, where countries can disagree without fear of coercion, where we can exercise our agency and make our choices.


But I also want to talk about why this matters between the United States and China. Given the meeting between President Biden and President Xi this week, I think it is worth reiterating.  Australia has put a high priority on the need for the big powers – the US and China – to re-establish communications. 


We have said that we want to see guardrails and measures put in place to manage strategic competition.  We are pleased to see the agreement of military-military communications between the United States and China.


We share the concerns of our regional partners about the potential for an accident or miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea to lead to catastrophic conflict.


Dialogue and level-headed communications are key. 

This is true for the great powers, but it also applies to the region as a whole, and to Australia’s relations with China. 


Because “stabilising’ relations does not mean there will be no disagreement. In my mind it means that the relationship contains mechanisms to facilitate dialogue and to deal with events and incidents which challenge stability.


Australian Navy vessels regularly travel through the region. It is in Australia’s interest, and it is a right protected by international law, for Navy vessels to conduct passage and exercises in the area where it lawful to do so.


The incident last week illustrates this point. Deploying sonar technology while RAN divers were operating below water injured them. It was unprofessional, and dangerous.


The Australian Government formally expressed our concerns about this unsafe interaction.


We did this through well-established and appropriate channels, in a calm and consistent way.


Indeed, as the Prime Minister said today, this is a clear example of what we mean by “we disagree where we must.”



The safety and wellbeing of our ADF personnel continues to be our top priority.


Australia expects all countries, including China, to operate their militaries in a professional and safe manner.


Defence has for decades undertaken maritime surveillance activities in the region and does so in accordance with international law, exercising the right to freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and airspace.


This incident should not have occurred - and the Government has clearly communicated that to China.


As the Prime Minister has said, Australia’s approach to China will continue to will continue to be patient, measured and calibrated.


We understand that as a great power, China rightfully expects to play a larger role in shaping the region. It seeks strategic influence to match its economic weight.


That role also comes with responsibilities - to reassure neighbours, to uphold international law and the rules of the road, to manage competition with other great powers and to respect the rules and uphold the peace that has been the foundation of stability and prosperity in our region.


Australia will continue to defend rules and to press for stability and peace. But we know peace is not a gift and it’s never a given. We must work at it and work for it. It is in all of our interests.


A more stable relationship between our two countries unlocks the opportunity for a more stable presence and influence on our region, where countries can disagree where they need to, where all nations can exercise their agency and make their choices – and ultimately, maintain peace, progress, and a more resilient, prosperous region.


That is what our government’s approach to China works towards, and that is where we all have a role to play.