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Cultural Diversity and Australian Foreign Policy

Address to Labor Diversity Fellowship Multicultural Dinner, Melbourne, 6 December 2019

Australia faces an international environment, both regionally and globally, more challenging than it has been for a very long time. Big and often very troubling geopolitical shifts have been occurring, most of them faster and going further than almost any of us would have believed possible not very long ago.

But we also have more strengths than we sometimes acknowledge in responding to those challenges, and one of them is our already extraordinary cultural diversity, with all the human resources – culturally sensitive and linguistically proficient – available to us as a result.

And that’s the theme of my talk this evening – the foreign policy challenges we face, how we should as a nation be responding to them, and the particular contribution of cultural diversity to that response.

Foreign Policy Challenges. Our foreign policy challenges are many and various, including China’s rapid rise; America’s rapid comparative decline; North Korea’s rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons capability; ASEAN’s loss of a significant amount of its coherence and credibility at a time when both have never been more needed; the re-emergence of our own immediate South Pacific region as a potential playground for major power contest; India’s long awaited emergence as a major player; and Russia playing the role of regional hegemon and global spoiler whenever and wherever it can (although, we often forget, its economy remains no bigger than Australia’s).

We are affected, moreover, by Europe struggling to maintain its own coherence in the face of Britain’s Brexit brain-fade and surging nationalist and populist sentiment across the continent; and a deteriorating worldwide commitment to multilateral problem solving, with diminishing confidence in the capacity of a global rules-based order to constrain those who are big and strong enough to think they can act unilaterally. And that list of the world’s troubles doesn’t even mention what is happening in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America.

Of all these challenges, it is the contest between the United States and China which is dominating almost everything else, and certainly concentrating the minds of Australian policymakers more than anything else, with almost every day’s news generating new concerns – real of exaggerated – about Chinese over-reach, or American over-reaction.

China’s economic rise has been breathtaking in its speed and magnitude, and is now being accompanied by much more political assertiveness. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, intolerance of internal dissent, including in Hong Kong, is back to almost Maoist dimensions. Internationally, the longstanding injunction of Deng Xiaoping for China to ‘hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead’ has now been completely abandoned. China wants to be a global rule-maker, not just a rule taker. It is no longer prepared to accept second-rank status in international financial and policymaking institutions. Its economic strength is now being parlayed into geopolitical influence on a massive scale across the Asian continent and its maritime surrounds, including the Pacific, through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Strategically, China wants its own space in East Asia, and is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the United States. Militarily, while its expenditure and overall firepower does not match America’s, and catch-up globally will be a long time coming, there has been a very significant modernization and expansion of its capability, certainly along the East Asian littoral, and into the Indian Ocean. Most disconcertingly, some expansionist territorial claims have been pursued, most notably in the South China Sea, with the continuing creeping militarisation of the reef installations in the Spratlys.

As China’s authority has been rising, that of the United States has been manifestly waning, notwithstanding the enormous economic and military power the US continues to have, and the alliances and partnerships it continues to maintain. Its President has forfeited by his behaviour any claim to personal respect, and he Trump administration has squandered US credibility, not just in Asia but worldwide, at multiple levels.

They include tearing up the painstakingly negotiated, and manifestly successful, nuclear agreement with Iran; by insulting and alienating his NATO partners, and making clear in multiple ways that he regards allies as expensive encumbrances rather than assets; by walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, trying to destroy the WTO, and showing less understanding than a junior high-school student of the economic benefits of international trade; and by mounting a host of other assaults on multilateral institutions and processes, above all walking away from the Paris Climate Accords.

Responding to the Challenges. So, how should Australia be reacting to these and other stress-generating international developments in our own region and beyond? I think there should be four primary elements in our policy response: Less America, More Self-Reliance, More Asia and More Global Engagement.

Less America. I am not suggesting for a moment that Australia walk away from the US alliance, from which we unquestionably benefit in terms of access to intelligence and high-end armaments, and – however flimsy the ANZUS guarantee may prove to be in reality – the notional deterrent protection of America’s massive military firepower. Continued counter-balancing US engagement in our region is certainly highly desirable, but less reflexive support by Australia for everything the US chooses to do is long overdue. My own experience strongly suggests that periodically saying ‘no’ to the US when our national interests are manifestly different, makes for a much healthier and productive relationship than one of craven dependence.

The bottom line is that neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that, for all the insurance we might think we have bought with our past support, the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat. While that was almost certainly also the reality under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, and it should not be assumed that anything would be very different in a post-Trump era. I think the reality is, as my ANU colleague Hugh White has repeatedly put it, that ‘we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America’.

None of this positioning is as breathtakingly adventurous, or politically dangerous, as it might once have been. Recognition that the US is a much less reliable ally than it once may have been is alive and well in Europe, is creeping into the writing even of the conservative commentariat here and was clearly a subtext of the Government’s own Foreign Policy White Paper in 2017. Both sides of Australian politics are going to have to think long and hard about how sensible it is to resist coming to terms with this new reality.

More Self-Reliance. Preparing ourselves to rely less on America certainly means being more of a diplomatic free agent: adding to our reputation and credibility with an activist foreign policy that is creative, proactive, value-adding and unconstrained by the constant urge to look over our shoulder to Washington. But more than that, it does entail, in military terms, building defence capability that involves not only more bucks than we are usually comfortable spending but getting a bigger bang for each of them.

It means focusing, as Hugh White argues in his new book on Australian defence, on maritime denial, with a necessary complete rethink of our major equipment expenditure priorities (although I certainly don't agree with his willingness to even contemplate Australia acquiring its own nuclear weapons capability: that way lies madness).

More Asia. This to me has two dimensions: on the one hand, strengthening our relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, as a collective counterweight to a potentially overreaching China; and on the other hand trying to develop a more multidimensional relationship, not just a one dimensional economic one, with China itself.

As much as I would welcome Australia developing an even closer relationship with ASEAN as a whole – with all its potential for harnessing the region’s collective middle power energy and capacity – and to see that relationship perhaps extending in the future to some form of associate membership rather than just partnership, I suspect that for the foreseeable future internal divisions, and the organization’s culture of extreme caution, make that unlikely, and that our efforts in South East Asia should be focused on its two heaviest players, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as our traditional partners Singapore and Malaysia.

So far as China itself is concerned, it is critical – and I am glad to see the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper spelling this out quite clearly, and this focus becoming evident in policy statements from our own side – to approach the relationship in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement. We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front.

None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values, and should be prepared to push back strongly when China overreaches, as it has in the South China Sea, and of course have to strongly resist any undermining of our political and other national institutions.

But it does mean recognizing the legitimacy of many of China’s own security and economic national interest claims, including the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative: with us being a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and being prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise. And it certainly means recognizing the legitimacy of China’s demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a participant in global rule-making.

In that context, one of the most productive ways of building content into Australia’s relationship may be to work more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to nuclear arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on many of which issues China has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised. Some will say Xi Jinping’s rapid occupation of the climate space abdicated by the US, and rush, similarly, to champion the virtues of free trade, was just cynical opportunism, but I don’t think we should necessarily assume that: we should be out there exploring the options.

More Global Engagement. I strongly believe that this should come back into focus as a sustaining theme of Australian foreign policy, picking up the idea that what I have described as ‘being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen’ is itself a core national interest, sitting alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests. (Penny Wong, prefers to say that we should engage in ‘constructive internationalism’, but it’s the same basic idea). Cooperatively advancing global and regional public goods is not just a matter of boy scout good deeds – there are hard headed reciprocity and reputational returns.

The willingness of ALP governments in the past to take seriously the pursuit of global and regional public goods, even when there was no direct or immediate economic or security return, has been a fundamental point of differentiation between us and most of our conservative opponents for decades now, and it’s time in my judgement for this to take centre stage again. Particularly since Morrison’s pathetic Trump-lite speech to the Lowy Institute in October, talking about ‘negative globalism’, not only manifesting his obvious discomfort with any kind of international process on issues like climate change and refugees, but turning his back on decades of largely bipartisan support for effective global institutions, and an influential Australian role within them.

Australia has been at its best, and our standing in the world highest, when we play to the strengths we undoubtedly have, and have projected ourselves effectively on to the world stage as a country deeply committed to our common humanity and determined to do everything we can to make the world safer, saner, more prosperous and just.

Australia's Strengths. In assessing the strengths we have, we have to acknowledge frankly that the ledger is not one-sided. There are obvious constraints limiting the exercise of Australia’s diplomatic authority. We are not a great or major power, with economic or military might to match. We are somewhat geographically isolated, though much less than in the past. As a rusted on US ally – at least until now – with an unbroken record for more than a century of fighting Washington’s wars alongside it, we are not always seen, especially by the global South, to be as independently minded as we like to think of ourselves. Memories linger of our past racist policies, and we have to be more careful than most about charges of double standards or hypocrisy if our immigration, Indigenous or other policies are either wrong-headed or misunderstood internationally.

But against all that Australia does bring to the table some wonderful strengths: assets and capabilities giving real weight to our standing and reputation – some of them inherent or of very long standing, some much more recently acquired. We are by most measures the thirteenth largest economy in the world, and by any measure we are the sixth largest by landmass and have the third largest maritime zone. We bring to the table a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australians working in international organizations, both official and non-governmental, and Australian peacekeepers, have won almost universally outstanding reputations; we have had a strong and longstanding commitment to a rule-based global and regional order; and we have had a long record of demonstrated national commitment to the United Nations system in all its security, social and economic justice and human rights dimensions.

On top of that, we have been seen for many decades as a creative middle power with global interests and a long – though certainly not unbroken – record of active and effective diplomacy, on global and regional as well as bilateral issues. What should give us confidence in facing the future is how well, particularly under past Labor governments, Australia has played that international role in the past. On my time, for example, during the Hawke and Keating Governments, we helped create the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and other new, cooperative, regional economic and security architecture; crafted the peace plan for Cambodia; secured the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention and advanced some major nuclear weapons objectives; played a central role throughout during the Uruguay Round trade negotiations; built, with France, a strong coalition to save the Antarctic environment from mining and oil drilling; and were a key player in crafting the financial sanctions strategy which finally brought down apartheid in South Africa.

But beyond all that, the national strength I want to emphasise tonight, particularly when it comes to implementing in practice two of the four policy themes I have advocated – More Asia and More Global Engagement – is that we are one of the most multicultural countries in the globe, with a very large pool of culturally sensitive and fluent foreign language speakers – hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Australians alone – constituting a fantastic but so far under-appreciated and underutilised resource.

Cultural Diversity as a National Resource. It is now the case that 28 per cent of our people were born overseas, and another 20 per cent have at least one overseas-born parent. We have more overseas-born than Canada with its 22 per cent, and double the percentage in the United States – with an ever-increasing proportion of our overseas-born coming from Asia, more now in fact than from Europe.

Although it is not easy to extract precise data on the ethnic or cultural composition of our whole population, the best current estimates are that Asian-Australians now constitute 12 per cent of our people, while another 9 per cent are identified as Non-European: 21 per cent in total. Those of Anglo-Celtic background still make up 58 per cent, other European background 18 per cent, while Indigenous Australians are 3 per cent of the population.

The value of that cultural diversity to the Australian national interest – and above all to our foreign policy interests – should shriek out to all of us.

When it comes to those who represent us abroad, if it is the case that our future is going to be far more determined by our Indo-Pacific geography than our Euro-Atlantic history, it seems hard to even begin to contest the proposition that our interests would be optimally-served by having many more Asian-Australians, and other ‘hyphenated-Australians’ in visible leadership positions. Is there any unbiased observer in the country who does not think that our Australian-Malaysian Chinese Senator Penny Wong would have made – and will make in the future -- a brilliant Australian foreign minister?

I am very happy to see that, however much the government might be dragging its feet in other ways, when it comes to cultural diversity within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – including in leadership positions – the penny does seem to have dropped. Indian-Australian Peter Varghese was recently an outstanding head of department, and I am delighted to see, as I move around, an increasing number of heads of mission and others in senior positions who don't begin to conform to the Anglo-European norm: ambassadors and high commissioners and consuls general like James Choi in Korea, Harinder Sidhu in India, Gita Kamath in South Africa, Ridwaan Jadwat in Saudi Arabia and Christopher Lim in Chengdu and Pablo Kang in the United Arab Emirates.

What matters enormously not only in bilateral diplomacy but in multilateral diplomacy – right across the whole spectrum of security, economic and social issues – is cultural sensitivity to the values, interests and world-view of others, and the capacity to communicate effectively, best of all in your interlocutor’s own language. Of course those skills can be learned – or when your language-acquisition wiring is as rusty as mine was, you can get by very well through professional interpreters. But we need to better appreciate what a wonderful natural resource we have already in our population.

To focus just on our immediate Asian environment, we already have right in our midst a massive pool of native Asian-language speakers – 900,000 fluent in Chinese dialects for a start, a great many of them highly trained professionals – from whom we can draw all the linguistically-skilled and culturally sensitive talent we need. While of course it is important for Australians of non-Asian origin to learn Chinese and other Asian languages at school or university – if for no other reason than the wider cultural exposure that comes with any decent language teaching – we should not be overly anxious at the paucity of really fluent speakers those programs are now producing. We have all the resources we need in front of our eyes.

This is relevant of course in commercial and professional context as well as a direct government relations one. In the Diversity Council of Australia’s 2014 report, Cracking the Cultural Ceiling: Future Proofing your Business in the Asian Century, the biggest indicator of Asia capability – apart from establishing a head office based in the region – was whether the organisation made a priority of workforce cultural diversity and was free from diversity-related stereotypes and biases.

It’s again worth noting, by those many corporations for which the penny has not yet dropped, that McKinsey research in Europe and the Americas has shown that more culturally diverse corporate leadership teams achieve better financial performance: companies in the top quartile for diversity were 35 per cent more likely to have financial returns above the national industry median. The reason is apparently simply that better decision making occurs within groups that are not homogenous, when propositions are challenged and advocates confronted by others who don't think or have life experiences just like us.

Making the Most of our Cultural Diversity. There is not much doubt that we are as a nation seriously underutilizing the fabulous resource we have in our Australians of Non-European origin. While the leadership of our professional diplomatic relations is a good news story, the story is nothing like as good when it comes to the number and proportion of such Australians, and particularly Asian-Australians, in leadership positions elsewhere in government and the wider community. It’s obvious in our Parliaments, in the professions, and in our major companies.

Overall, the best statistical, as distinct from anecdotal, evidence we have of the under-representation of Asian-Australians in leadership positions comes from the AHRC Cultural Diversity Leadership Blueprint, updated in April 2018. Examining first the cultural backgrounds of chief executive officers of ASX200 companies, federal government ministers, heads of federal and state government departments and vice-chancellors of universities, the Commission found that just 1.6 per cent of them were Asian-Australians.

And even when the enquiry was broadened out to cover leadership positions one level below this – group executives of ASX companies, elected members of the Commonwealth Parliament, deputy heads of government departments and deputy vice-chancellors – the proportion of Asian-Australians is just 3.3 per cent. Which is a long way below the 12 per cent that their numbers in the broader community would suggest should be the norm. Only Indigenous Australians fare worse, occupying just 0.4 per cent of senior leadership positions against their share of the total population of 3 per cent.

So we do have a long way to go before the need for cultural diversity captures the same kind of attention from executive decision-makers that gender diversity now so obviously has. But I am delighted to see that we at last now seem to be on our way, for example with the success earlier this year of the Asian-Australian Leadership Summit jointly sponsored by ANU, Asialink and PwC, which is now being followed up with support from the ANU to seed-fund the creation of a new Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership (CAAL) based in the ANU office in Melbourne, and led by Jieh-Yung Lo, with a brief to engaged in research, executive training and policy advocacy.

And we are particularly on our way with initiatives like this wonderful Diversity Fellowship program being piloted by the Labor Academy and Poliversity, which we are celebrating this evening. I hope very much that the fourteen fellows graduating from this program will see it as the beginning rather than the end of your engagement with public policy: and that some of you at least will seek a career in public office, ensuring that ALP governments at all levels are fully reflective of the cultural diversity which so obviously both characterises and benefits modern Australia.

Let me conclude by saying that in my judgment and experience, our track record over many decades overwhelmingly shows that Australia and individual Australians are decent and committed international citizens, independently minded – and with a real egalitarian streak, something which plays well with a great many other countries with our strong record, everywhere from peacekeeping missions to diplomatic forums, of neither sucking up to the powerful nor kicking down at the powerless.

Playing to that instinct of decency, focusing on cooperative problem solving, working through forums like the G20 and East Asia Summit and APEC where as a result of past Labor government efforts we have a top-table place, using all the energy and creativity that has traditionally been associated with Australian middle power diplomacy at its best – and above all with ALP governments – will be far and away the best ways of ensuring in the years and decades ahead, in a region and world in which the tectonic plates are shifting and every possible kind of uncertainty abounds, that this great country of ours not only survives but thrives.

And one of the best possible ways we can contribute to realising that objective will be to fully recognise, and take maximum advantage of, the reality that we have in the Asian-Australians and other non-Europeans in our midst a magnificent national resource that cries out to be more effectively utilised. So over to you, the next generation – being the wonderfully culturally and linguistically diverse generation that you are – to make that happen.