Australia will not be “forced into any binary choices” when it comes to dealing with the challenges caused by the tensions between the United States and China, according to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Morrison was awarded the inaugural Grotius Prize at a virtual event hosted by British think tank the Policy Exchange on Monday night, “in recognition of his work in support of the international rules based order”.
Former Australian high commissioner to the UK Alexander Downer and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson both attended the ceremony and congratulated Morrison.
In his speech, Morrison said nations can take from the work of the founding thinker of international law, Hugo Grotius, “the encouragement that our path is not fixed”.
“Free nations, liberal democracies, we have a fundamental role to play in securing peace and stability, fostering commerce and trade and solving the global challenges we cannot solve ourselves. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. We have a rich history of cooperation drawn. We must all play a part,” he said.
The economic rise of China is a good thing for the global economy, and good for Australia, which is why “Australia is not and has never been in the economic containment camp on China,” Morrison said.
However, the tensions between the US and China present new challenges, especially for nation states in the Indo-Pacific.
“Like other sovereign nations in the Indo-Pacific, our preference in Australia is not to be forced into any binary choices,” he said.
“Australia desires an open, transparent and mutually beneficial relationship with China as our largest trading partner, where there are strong people-to-people ties, complementary economies and a shared interest, especially, in regional development and well being, particularly in the emerging economies of Southeast Asia.
“Equally, we are absolutely committed to our engineering alliance with the United States, anchored in our shared worldview, liberal democratic values and market based economic model. And at all times we must be true to our own values and the protection of our own sovereignty. These are our Australian national interests.”
The PM noted pursuing these interests has become more complex due to the “assumptions” cast on Australia’s actions.
“Our actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the United States. It’s as if Australia does not have its own unique interests or its own views as an independent, sovereign state. This is just false. And worse it needlessly deteriorates relationships,” he said.
International institutions are most effective when they are driven by and accountable to the society of sovereign states that forms them, Morrison said.
“The challenge is to ensure that sovereign nations working in concert create deeper habits of cooperation on economic security and global environmental issues, while exhibiting a natural preference for rules-based solutions, freely submitting to such rules because it is in their broader national interest to do so.”
The PM warned that the world won’t recover from the COVID-19 recession if nations trade and invest less “or relinquish hard-won lessons on market-led wealth creation”.
Nations must “strengthen and reinforce existing networks and build new habits of cooperation and partnerships” in order to achieve common goals, Morrison said, noting the importance of institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the G7, the G7-plus and the five eyes arrangement in achieving those goals.
The 38 nations which comprise the OECD have a responsibility to lead the way. According to Morrison, this is why Australia has nominated, for the top OECD job, Mathias Cormann — who has this week been criticised for travelling around Europe to campaign for that role using taxpayer money.
Read more: Cormann Australia’s pick for top OECD job