Virtual Speech on the Indo-Pacific by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the Lowy Institute

22.08.2023 - Speech

Michael Fullilove,

Thank you for this very warm welcome.

I would like to join Michael in acknowledging all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Custodians of Country and recognise their continuing connection to land, sea, culture and community.

I pay my respects to Elders past and present.

I am honoured to speak today at the Lowy Institute.

But of course I would have much preferred to do so in person. As you may know, I was forced to cancel my trip to the Indo-Pacific region at very short notice last week, due to problems with our plane.

Thank you, Michael, for your kindness and flexibility in making this virtual exchange possible.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Distinguished guests,


Seventy-eight years ago, an Australian delegation travelled to San Francisco. Its purpose was nothing less than historic: to help draft the Charter of the United Nations – the rules that guide our international community to this day.

What was special about the Australian delegation was not only that it included a woman – Jessie Street, something that was still rare at the time.

What was also remarkable was that this delegation would be instrumental in shaping the United Nations as we know it today.

Australian Foreign Minister Herbert “Doc” Evatt, who headed the delegation, had a clear vision.

He believed that the maintenance of world peace should not rest in the hands of the great powers alone.

He wanted middle powers and smaller nations to have a seat at the table as well.

Evatt didn’t succeed in his aim to restrict the veto powers of the permanent members of the Security Council.

But he successfully advocated – also on behalf of many smaller powers – for giving the General Assembly a stronger advisory role than the great powers had originally planned.

Back in Australia, Evatt told parliament:

“(The United Nations) is the best presently available instrument, both for avoiding the supreme and ultimate catastrophe of a third world war, waged with all-destroying weapons, and also for establishing an international order which can and should assure to mankind security against poverty, unemployment, ignorance, famine and disease.”

I am recounting this episode because it is this unwavering belief in multilateralism, in cooperation and dialogue that also unites our two nations today.

Because, unlike other countries in the world, we don’t hold veto power in the UN Security Council. Neither are we the greatest military powers.

We believe that it is the UN Charter, our international order built upon common rules, that protects all states – no matter how big or small they are, no matter where they are located.

That’s why we will not turn a blind eye when these rules are broken.

Because if we failed to do so, I believe no one, anywhere, would be able to sleep peacefully, because we would all have to fear attack from a bigger neighbour.

That’s why in Australia, although your country is some 15,000 kilometres away from Ukraine, you stood up firmly against Russia’s war of aggression – as did many other medium and smaller powers across the world.

At a time when the UN Security Council was blocked due to Russia’s veto power, it was indeed the General Assembly that spoke out firmly, condemning Russia’s war with an overwhelming majority of more than 140 states across the world, condemning Russia’s war of aggression, condemning the fundamental breach of our UN Charter.

We showed that the General Assembly is our joint voice – our voice for peace.

Our voice for our global rules.

Our voice for our common security.

Australia’s support for Ukraine has been unwavering: through its political engagement, its military assistance and its strong support for sanctions, as well as its generous humanitarian measures.

What we have seen is an outstanding effort, also by New Zealand and other regional partners. We applaud this support, and we won’t forget it.

I think this shows that although oceans may separate us, Germany and Australia have a common understanding of the enormous challenges we face.

What we see is the emergence of a world of increasing systemic rivalry, in which some autocratic regimes seek to bend the international order to increase their spheres of influence, using not only military might but also economic clout.

This is especially true for the Indo-Pacific – a region which matters not only to your security, but also to ours, in Germany and Europe.

Because we share an interest in an Indo-Pacific that is peaceful.

A region where common rules are respected.

Where every state is free to determine its future, by making independent political and economic choices.

A region that is neither unipolar nor bipolar.

A region where shipping routes are open, where free and fair trade preserves the economic dynamics that have brought prosperity to hundreds of millions in the region.

A region where all states join hands to address the climate crisis.

And a region where men, women and children see their rights respected.

And I truly believe that middle powers like Australia, Germany, New Zealand and so many others are not condemned to be bystanders when it comes to shaping such an Indo-Pacific.

We have agency to build a better future, even when faced with enormous challenges.

Herbert Evatt already knew 80 years ago that we can make a difference if we work together, if we build coalitions.

Cooperation amplifies our voice, unity multiplies our power.

And when I look at our partners here in this vast and beautiful region, I am confident that we will get ahead on this, because our trust and cooperation is already solid in so many areas.

It’s clear that the Indo-Pacific will play a decisive role in the 21st century: one third of global GDP is generated here.

Today, around one fifth of Germany’s global trade is with the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. Countless jobs in cities like Hamburg, Frankfurt or Leipzig depend on these trade relations.

And I don’t only mean China here.

Yes, China accounts for a large share of our economic relations with the Indo-Pacific, but all the other Indo-Pacific countries together actually form the bigger share.

As a matter of fact, ASEAN is now our third-largest trading partner outside of Europe after China and the US.

Our technological and scientific progress also depends on the brilliant ideas of men and women in both our regions.

Malaysia, for example, is the second biggest country of origin of the microchips imported into Germany.

Or did you know that an Australian-German company based in Marburg is one of the leaders in research on how to treat haemophilia?

To me, these examples are examples of solid bonds. It’s our joint values and interests that make me confident we can meet the main three security challenges we both face:

  • strengthening the global rules that we all rely on,
  • bolstering our economic security
  • and accelerating our joint battle against our biggest global security threat: the climate crisis.

Firstly, that means firmly and jointly standing up for the rules that men and women like Jessie Street and Herbert Evatt laid down some 80 years ago. Because these rules ensure our common peace and prosperity.

And this is not an abstract statement, when we see that half of all container ships in the world today pass through the Taiwan Strait: container ships which transport goods like medicines, machine parts and food.

As Germans and Europeans – just the same as you here in Australia, New Zealand or the Pacific island states – we have a crucial interest in de-escalation and dialogue to avoid conflict.

We don’t accept it when others bend our common rules.

Any unilateral change in the status quo across the Taiwan Strait would be unacceptable, even more so if this were to include coercive or military means.

The United Nations, with its rules and institutions, was built to prevent exactly this.

That’s why we stand up for these rules - for the respect for the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as the arbitration ruling on the South China Sea.

And we know we have to fill these rules with life.

That’s why we cooperate with Australia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand in the East China Sea to observe compliance with the UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea. For this purpose, Germany dispatched a frigate in late 2021.

Germany has also become a regular participant in the most important joint military exercises organised in Australia.

Last year, Germany sent an air force contingent to participate in Kakadu and Pitch Black. Just a few weeks ago, the German army and navy participated in the biggest military exercise in Australia, Talisman Sabre. And we will certainly come back for the next rounds of Pitch Black and Talisman Sabre.

Because if international law is broken in your region, it can be broken anywhere. Your security matters to our security.

And let’s talk straight.

The Australian Government has endorsed the findings of the Defence Strategic Review 2023 quite comprehensively.

The Review describes the deterioration of the security environment in the Indo-Pacific and the unprecedented strategic challenges, including the potential for a major military conflict. And it also leaves little doubt about who is responsible for these worrying developments:

It is China’s military build-up – and I am quoting the Review here – “that is now the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second World War. (….) This build up is occurring without transparency or reassurance to the Indo-Pacific region of China’s strategic intent.”

The fact that China has been so central to Australian debates on foreign and security policy has had broader consequences: According to a survey by this Institute, Michael, the Lowy Institute, in 2018, only 12 percent of Australians perceived China as more of a military threat than an economic partner.

Today, the comparable figure stands at 52 percent.

I don’t think this development in perceptions has come out of the blue.

You, as a closer neighbour, realised earlier than we did what we have now also laid out in our Government’s China strategy:

China has changed, and that’s why our policy towards China also needs to change.

To us, China is not only a partner, but also, more and more, a competitor and systemic rival.

A partner – on global issues like fighting the effects of the climate crisis. A trading and investment partner, but also a competitor, as it is to Australia and many other countries in the region.

And, increasingly: China is a rival – when it comes to the very fundamentals of how we live together in this world: the principles of our international order and respect for human rights.

The China Strategy that my Government adopted a few weeks ago looks at this new China and how we need to respond to it.

And I want to state very clearly: this strategy does not mean that we have become obsessed with China, that our sole interest is now geared towards our relations with that one country.

Yes, one part of our China Strategy is about our bilateral relations - obviously. But the much bigger part is about how we should deal with the challenges posed by China across the world.

And that concerns all of us – in Europe, in Africa, in Latin America – and particularly here, in the Indo-Pacific.

We see how numerous countries are pivoting more towards China. And we have to be honest about this: Often, this is due to a lack of alternatives.

We would like to change this.

And what’s clear is that our offers will not promote a new confrontation between blocs.

We want to gain partners who choose to work with us more closely because both of us will gain from it.

And that brings me to my second point: economic security.

As Evatt already said some 80 years ago – we know that security is more than protection from military conflict and violence.

Security also means being able to live a free life, not being subject to coercion or blackmail. And that means strengthening our joint resilience.

Because the economy is geopolitical.

Such a realisation does not lead us towards decoupling. What we seek to do is to de-risk our economic relationships.

And crucially, that means diversifying, broadening partnerships that not only create economic value for both sides but also help all involved to reduce risks.

In Germany, we learned painfully how vulnerable our one-sided dependencies on Russian energy imports made us. We don’t want to repeat that mistake.

For many countries in the world, and particularly here in this region, China is by far their biggest trading partner.

But China is not always as predictable, transparent and reliable as is needed to allow a stable economic relationship. Australians know what this means.

That’s why the European Union’s Trade Policy seeks to help not only us Europeans to diversify trade but also our partners.

Because it makes us all stronger.

It’s good news that the EU and New Zealand signed a Free Trade Agreement last month, which could increase trade between both sides by up to 30 percent within the next decade.

I had hoped we would also conclude the negotiations for the EU-Australian trade deal in July. We should now strive to finalise it.

The same goes for the Free Trade Agreements with India and the ASEAN member states.

We also want to strengthen our partnerships on natural resources that are key to the green energy transition.

Australia has a leading position in this, producing half of the world’s lithium and a large share of cobalt, as well as rare earths.

One challenge in establishing direct supply chains with Germany, however, is that there is little on-site processing:

One example: more than 90 percent of the lithium mined in Australia is exported without further processing to China, while the EU imports more than 90 percent of its processed lithium needs from China.

The key question is:

How can we diminish this risky detour?

How can we politically support business in tapping into this potential?

Australia is already planning new mines and processing facilities.

In April, Siemens, Andritz and Plinke signed an agreement to provide key technologies for the Townsville Energy Chemicals Hub, which includes a refinery for battery materials.

I believe we need more such partnerships.

Because in a globalised world, mining and processing is also geopolitical.

That’s why de-risking means becoming better at seeing all economic interactions through a geopolitical lens.

Here in Australia, you experienced painfully how China is willing to use economic coercion when it imposed restrictions on key exports like wine, meat and coal – to exert political pressure.

You have actually been a role model in not bowing to that pressure. I want to express my great respect for the courage and resilience as well as the sense of proportion that you demonstrated.

In the EU, Lithuania has also experienced such coercion from China.

To be able to react to this kind of pressure, European unity was key, because China tried to divide European countries in exactly this way.

The EU developed the Anti-Coercion Instrument, with which we can protect European companies against attempts at blackmail by third countries, with measures ranging from dialogue to tariffs or trade restrictions, if required.

We are also looking more closely at the actors that are investing in our critical infrastructure – in our ports, roads or telecommunications networks. That’s why we will strengthen foreign and security policy criteria in the investment screening process.

We have learned a lot from Australia in this. We closely followed your debate on leasing a strategic port to a company from China.

We followed your debate – already a couple of years ago - on 5G, on cyber security. This has clearly shaped our policy responses.

To conclude, I want to address our third security challenge, the biggest of our time, the climate crisis. A crisis that is causing destruction worldwide. Australia has seen devastating bush fires, half of Asia is suffering from recurring storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels.

And again, I want to state very clearly: it is up to us to form coalitions to bring about change.

That is exactly why, together with Australia, we support the Pacific island states in making their voice heard.

On Saturday, we opened a new German Embassy in Suva, Fiji.

Unfortunately, our plane problems meant that I wasn’t able to be at the opening myself, which I deeply regret.

The key focus of our team there will be to help battle the effects of the climate crisis in the region. And to help the most vulnerable states with climate impacts that can no longer be reversed.

And for that, major emitting countries – like mine – carry particular responsibility.

At the COP in Sharm el-Sheikh, we agreed to set up new financing mechanisms for loss and damage. We are now working hard to use existing mechanisms better and to set up new structures. And we want to see substantial decisions made on this at COP28 in Dubai.

Australia’s bid for COP31 – together with Pacific island states – is a key opportunity to show how strong Australia’s commitment is to leading this battle, together with those countries that are most affected.

I’m glad that we are in this marathon effort together as well.

78 years ago, in San Francisco, Jessie Street, Herbert Evatt and their colleagues knew what we know now.

We will only be able to shape our future together.

As partners who can rely on each other and who will stand up for each other. No matter how big or small we are.

Because our security depends on it.


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