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Australia is facing “the most consequential changes in the global environment since WWII", confidential ministerial briefing papers have warned, with the prosperity and stability of states in the Indo-Pacific at risk from "increasing illiberalism" and "democratic backsliding"”
The internal briefing documents, prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) for Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, reveal increasing concern within the department about Australia's place in the region amid the rise of China. DFAT identifies the deployment of high-quality assistance in the Indo-Pacific as a top priority.
The briefing for Senator Payne said “populism, nationalism and authoritarianism” would continue to put pressure on the international system. “We need to work hard to respond to the challenges, enhancing global co-operation and limiting coercive power,” it said.
The 125-page documents known as “blue books”, delivered to the Morrison government after it won the May election, were released to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age under Freedom of Information laws on Tuesday.
Up to 80 per cent of them are redacted but they reveal key areas the department would like the government to focus on. These include digital security and cyber attacks as an “increasingly prominent foreign policy issue”, advocating for multilateral human rights as a “keystone” of foreign affairs, the rising threat of climate change in the Pacific and the promotion of open markets.
Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the 2nd China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai with a promise to ease market access, counter protectionism and boost economic globalization.
“The Indo-Pacific's extreme vulnerability to natural disasters - it is home to 10 out of 15 countries most at risk from natural disasters - is likely to increase with the impact of climate change,” the briefing to Senator Payne noted.
The Morrison government has been criticised by Pacific Island nations for not doing enough to combat climate change. Several, including the Solomon Islands and Kiribati have begun a diplomatic pivot to China, which has pledged billions of dollars in infrastructure funding through its Belt and Road initiative.
“The deployment of high-quality humanitarian assistance in the wake of natural disasters is a clear demonstration of our commitments and relevance to our Pacific partners,” DFAT said.
More broadly, it warned that in Asia, the benefits of growing economies had not been shared equitably.
“Increasing illiberalism, including rising human rights abuses, democratic backsliding and closing space for civil society risk impacting on the prosperity and stability of states in the region,” the briefing said, without identifying specific countries.
The briefings were delivered to the government two months after protests in Hong Kong began over an extradition bill that could have seen its citizens tried in mainland China for alleged crimes committed in the territory. The protests entered their 242nd day on Monday. Senator Payne has taken an increasingly assertive stance on Hong Kong and human rights issues in China in the months since.
Former foreign minister Alexander Downer on Tuesday urged Australia to be more “self-confident” in its dealings with Beijing, saying other countries should not try to “bully” Australia and noting China was heavily dependent on Australia for raw materials.
“China needs to remember that this is a relationship of mutual benefit,” he told the National Press Club. “We need to be more self-confident, if I could put it that way. We're not going to kow-tow, to use that Chinese expression, to anybody. Not to anybody. And not to China.”
Senator Birmingham's trade briefing urged the Morrison government to defend the rules-based trade order.
It found 1 in 5 Australian jobs across exports, mining and services were directly related to trade. Over the past 30 years, the real income of Australian families had lifted by more than AUD$8000(US$5,468) due to trade liberalisation, highlighting the risks of any worsening of the US$300 billion trade conflict between the US and China.
“Our economic prosperity is built on open trade and investment and ensuring we remain internationally competitive,” the briefing said.
The release of the documents comes as a high-level delegation from South Korea arrives in Sydney for the 40th Australia-Korea Business Council meeting. On Wednesday, Australia's ambassador to South Korea, James Choi, South Korea's ambassador to Australia, Baeksoon Lee, and the chair of South Koran steel giant POSCO, Jeong-Woo Choi, will urge countries to diversify their interests to protect their economies.
“In a time of rising protectionist sentiment, Australia and Korea, as like-minded partners, are continuing to take a determined stand to advocate for the benefits of open and free trade,” James Choi will say.
Lee will add the “uncertainty of the world's economy is spreading”.
“As we have witnessed, our future can be insecure when there is an over-reliance with a particular country from the past history,” he will say. “This means that middle power countries like South Korea and Australia have to unite protecting the core value of the free trade.”
Jeong-Woo Choi will say the 21st century is “full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity” labelling it the “VUCA century”.
He will acknowledge that without Australia's iron ore it would have been hard for POSCO to become "the most competitive steel manufacturer in the world”, but will say now is the time for “an upgrade” in the trading relationship by diversifying towards hydrogen and healthcare. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency forecasts Australia's hydrogen exports to be worth up to $10 billion (US$6.8 million) a year by 2040.
Senators Payne and Birmingham were contacted for comment
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