Gallipoli Memorial Lecture 2016: Is the 21st Century the Asian Century?

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This year’s Gallipoli Memorial Lecture was delivered by His Excellency The Honourable Alexander Downer AC, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Senior Associate Fellow, RUSI. Many foreign policy commentators assume that the 21st century will be dominated by China, Japan and India. In his lecture, Alexander Downer considered whether the current rise of Asian powers in juxtaposition to a declining America and Europe is necessarily what the future holds.

The Speech

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you [Sir Ian] for those kind words of introduction. 

I am honoured to have been invited to deliver the 2016 Gallipoli Memorial Lecture here in this prestigious location - the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). I am also honoured to be associated with RUSI

The heroics and tragedies of the Gallipoli campaign hold a special place for all Australians.  We commemorate the campaign annually in Australia on April 25 – Anzac Day – our equivalent of Remembrance Day, if you like.

The full meaning of Anzac Day I think is beautifully encapsulated in an open letter from Banjo Patterson, one of Australia’s foremost poets, to the ANZAC troops in the Dardanelles in 1915.  His message I think is as powerful today as it was one hundred years ago.  It does reflect the “coming of age” of the young nation of Australia, former six colonies forging together for the first time a collective national identity. This poem is worth reciting here since this is the Gallipoli Memorial lecture:

Australia takes her pen in hand

To write a line to you,

To let you fellows understand

How proud we are of you.


From shearing shed and cattle run,

From Broome to Hobson's Bay,

Each native-born Australian son

Stands straighter up today.


The old state jealousies of yore

Are dead as Pharaoh's sow,

We're not State children any more —

We're all Australians now!


Our six-starred flag that used to fly

Half-shyly to the breeze,

Unknown where older nations ply

Their trade on foreign seas,


Flies out to meet the morning blue

With Vict'ry at the prow;

For that's the flag the Sydney flew,

The wide seas know it now!


The mettle that a race can show

Is proved with shot and steel,

And now we know what nations know

And feel what nations feel.


With all our petty quarrels done,

Dissensions overthrown,

We have, through what you boys have done,

A history of our own.


Our old world diff'rences are dead,

Like weeds beneath the plough,

For English, Scotch, and Irish-bred,

They're all Australians now!

And with Australia's flag shall fly

A spray of wattle-bough

To symbolise our unity —

We're all Australians now.

I had the honour of representing the Australian Government at ANZAC Day ceremonies on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 2001 when I was the Foreign Minister of Australia.  On that occasion, I said

The memory of the sacrifice of those who died in the Gallipoli campaign - no matter who they fought for - reminds us of the dreadful cost of war. Those who perished here died bravely, courageously, overcoming any fear that may have lived in their hearts. They died in vain only if we fail - fail to take renewed courage from their sacrifice, and strengthen our determination to work towards building a more peaceful world in the future.

In order to be able to build a more peaceful world in the future, it is important that we have a clear eyed understanding of the present.  Institutions such as RUSI play an invaluable role in this endeavour.  Through its world class research and providing a platform for discussion and debate, RUSI informs our understanding of the present.

And given our current circumstances – with significant geo-strategic shifts afoot in Europe, America and the Asia-Pacific - there is an ever present need for informed and balanced consideration of our security environment to ensure that we work towards building that more peaceful world in the future.

Geostrategic trends

It is undeniable that Asia is rising.  The shift of the world’s economic centre of gravity from West to East is already well underway.  The Indo- Pacific region will be of immense and enduring importance to global stability and prosperity well into the coming decades.

To illustrate this, consider the following:

  • Three of the four world’s largest economies are currently in Asia - China, Japan and India.  
  • In the past 20 years, China and India have quadrupled their share of the global economy.  
  • Within a few years, barring some kind of security disaster, Asia will not only be the world’s largest producer of goods and services, but it will be the world’s largest consumer of them.  
  • By 2030, Asia will account for over one third of global economic output, rising to over one half by 2050.  
  • Price Waterhouse Coopers has projected that Indonesia’s economy in 2030 will be larger than the UK’s, and by 2050, the fourth largest in the world.  
  • ASEAN’s combined economy quadrupled in size from 2000, and if it were treated as a single economic entity, its GDP in 2014 would have sat 7th in the table of world’s largest economies, between France and Brazil.

The economic rise of Asia is being followed by its increasing strategic importance, military might and, to varying degrees, soft power.

How the post war international order – which has defined international relations for the past 70 years - accommodates and adapts to this rise of Asia will largely define our collective future. 

But it is not a zero sum game.  A rising Asia does not mean that the United States is in decline.  The United States has been written off before, but it has a remarkable ability to reassert itself.  From the Australian Government’s perspective, as noted in the 2016 Defence White Paper, we assess that the United States will remain the most significant economy, and will remain the pre-eminent global military power, over the next two decades and probably well beyond.  And an enduring, strong and adaptable US presence in the Asia region remains the best way to guarantee continued prosperity and security for all.

The world will continue to look to the United States for leadership in global security affairs and to lead military coalitions that support international security and the rules based global order.  

As we all know, the Obama Administration has entered into its lame duck twilight and increasingly we find ourselves talking about “President-elect Trump”. In a democratic contest, the US people have chosen their next president.  Much will be written and said about the election campaign and why the result fell the way it did – any electoral process that runs for as long as the US presidential electoral one is ripe fodder for endless analysis.  As a political junkie, I am soaking it all up.  But at the end of the day, the people have spoken and we must respect their decision.

So we need to turn our attention to what the Trump Administration will mean for the world.  And RUSI has been making some great contributions to that endeavour.  

It is still early days. We still only have the rhetoric from the campaign trail, rather than any real detail on which to base an assessment of his future foreign and defence policies.  There is a need to see the make-up of his cabinet and the relationships his Administration forges with the Congress.  Our collective assessment of what a Trump presidency means for the world will necessarily be an iterative process over the coming months.

One thing that does seem to be pretty clear is that he will expect allies to do their share for the common defence, to make an appropriate contribution to their alliances.  It is hardly surprising that he would feel strongly about this.  In Europe, there appears to be, amongst many, an expectation that the United States will guarantee their security, yet a reluctance to work towards the NATO goal of spending 2% of GDP on defence.  As for Australia, we are growing the Defence budget to 2% of GDP by 2020-21 with a comprehensive and responsible long-term plan to ensure Australia’s national security.  

Trump’s frustration with the commitment of some of the US’s allies is not a new phenomenon.  It is, arguably, a continuation of the mood of the Obama administration.  What is not yet clear is how this mood will express itself in policy terms.

On this side of the Atlantic, Europe has been forced to become preoccupied with internal affairs through some significant events of its own.  To name a few:

  • Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its subsequent incursions into eastern Ukraine, resulting in the frozen conflict we see today.
  • Unprecedented flows of people from war-torn Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa – over one million people in 2015 - placing considerable strain on the countries and institutions of Europe, and on European unity. 
  • the evolving threat of terrorism – which has struck repeatedly and tragically on European soil, at times in the centre of some of Europe’s greatest cities.
  • And the significant strategic shock of Brexit.  

Brexit is both a symptom of the multitude of broader issues facing European governments – growing eurosceptism; rising radicalization; fears of uncontrolled migration; disenchantment with globalization and the political class – but it is also a catalyst for the realization that European integration can be reversed.

Protectionist and nationalist instincts that had been slowly building across Europe for years have a new found momentum, challenging the heart of the European Union.  It is not an overstatement to say that the European project is under considerable strain.  And its future will depend on the decisions taken by the 27 as they seek to respond to events I outlined above.

But it is not all dire in Europe.  Europe has played a significant role as a global force for peace, democracy and the rule of law.  European development and European integration has supported the elevation of these values into many areas of international law and norms that underpin the international rules-based order.  

And there are two countries - both permanent members of the UN Security Council - that remain engaged globally and committed to international peace and security. 

The UK – with its commitment to contribute 2% of GNI to defence spending and 0.7% to overseas development assistance; a military with force projection capability; and immense soft power- looking to engage globally, especially now in this post-Brexit world.  

And France – similarly meeting its 2% defence spending commitment, fifth largest provider of development assistance and fifth in the Global Soft Power index – looking to engage globally, not only rhetorically at the Security Council table but through action as well.

But the need for European consensus inhibits European states in the development of their foreign policy.  For the UK at least, as it looks to leave the EU, there is the hope that it will step up its global engagement and show real leadership – on issues that affect not only Europe and the Middle East, but also the Indo-Pacific.  

We are seeing increasing UK engagement in the Indo-Pacific.  For example, RAF Typhoon jets recently deployed to Asia, first to take part in the annual Five Powers Defence Arrangement (FPDA) exercise (Bersama Lima 16) and then to exercise with Japanese counterparts.  

With Brexit, we hope to see the UK develop a more assertive and strategic foreign policy, with greater engagement in addressing the foreign and security policy challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

So what does the future hold?

Since the end of the Second World War, international politics has played out within a global order unlike any that preceded it.

For the past 70 years, the most powerful nation on Earth – the United States - has carried the unique distinction, for a super power, of seeing its own national interest as lying in the promotion of public goods and the development of a peaceful, rules based global order, where states voluntarily limit the exercise of their power for the common good. 

For decades we have enjoyed relative stability, underpinned by United States military dominance that has deterred other states from destabilising behaviour, and by international rules that afford us a degree of certainty. 

We have enjoyed greater prosperity as the global order has facilitated a more open, free and secure trading system. It has provided us with rules for the global commons of the high seas, air space and outer space, and more recently, we have seen nascent efforts to do so for cyberspace.

We have benefited from global cooperation on transnational issues – multilateral negotiations and projects that promote development and help manage threats like climate change, transnational crime, terrorism and pandemics. 

While the global order is not perfect, and multilateral processes can be painfully slow and inflexible, the post war order has on the whole served the world well. It is after all, a construct, a device created by states that can be maintained and refashioned by states.

The challenge now, as we move to a complex, multi-polar world, is to update the global order to take into account the realities of the 21st Century:

  • to accommodate the legitimate interests of emerging powers and a global citizenry that increasingly defines itself outside of state’s borders; 
  • to reflect the fact that cross-border economic integration has changed how states interact with one another; 
  • while retaining the features of the global order that derive legitimacy from universal appeal. 

This will be no mean feat.  And is complicated further by the continued transnational issues that are placing pressures on states such as terrorism, people smuggling, cyber-crime, drug trafficking, and other organised crimes, together with existence of fragile states and ungoverned spaces.

An important lesson from history is that challengers to power will always emerge, either because of the competitive nature of international politics or because of the restless and dynamic quality of global capitalism. 

The significance of such challengers depends, to a large degree, on how States behave as they compete for relative power and how much they challenge the rules based order. 

World politics has been marked by a succession of powerful states rising up to organize the international system.  Long term changes in the distribution of power give rise to a struggle over the terms of the international order.  

Rising states want to translate their power into greater authority in the global system – to reshape the rules and institutions in accordance with their own interests… 

…while dominant powers may be tempted to use their own power to block the emergence of rising or revisionist states, including through the use of military force.

So what do we have now?

We have a revisionist Russia whose illegal annexation of territory, military incursions and support for separatist movements has flouted the principle of state sovereignty.  This is an obvious preoccupation of governments in Europe.  But equally, the Australian government is alarmed by Russia’s activities, given its direct challenge to the established order.  

Closer to my home, China’s behaviour, while more nuanced, also challenges the existing order as it seeks to make space for itself in the international system, commensurate with its economic and strategic weight, showing a preparedness to establish new institutions such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank if existing institutions do not adapt.

The rise of Asia, and more specifically China, should not be seen as a contest with the United States for global leadership.  The relationship between the United States and China is likely to continue to be characterised by a mixture of cooperation and competition depending on where and how their interests intersect.  

The Governments of both the United States and China have committed to maintaining a constructive relationship, which we welcome.  It is not in the national interest of either country to see an unstable international environment in which the free and open movement of trade and investment is compromised.  Indeed cooperation in security areas is already visibly demonstrated by joint exercises in search and rescue, counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. 

But it should be seen as a test for the rules-based international order.  In this light, Chinese activity in the South China Sea – its reclamation work; its militarisation of maritime features; and its wilful rejection of the UNCLOS Arbitral ruling - is a significant cause for concern.  

Not only because of its vital economic significance – with more than US $5 trillion of world trade and about a third of the world’s maritime traded oil passing through the South China Sea every year. 

But also because Chinese activity has undoubtedly ignored sensitivities in its neighbourhood and escalated regional tensions. 

China is not seeking to overthrow the established order. 

During UNGA Leaders’ week this year, China announced a 10 year US $1 billion China-UN peace and development fund. And it announced the establishment of a permanent peacekeeping police squad and a peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops.  Both are potentially valuable contributions to international efforts to maintain peace and security that should strengthen the established global order. 

But it is demanding that the established order adapts to make room for it.  We need to recognise that China will not be a power in our own image.  We need to focus on cooperation where we do see convergence – like market liberalism and regional stability, through forums such as APEC and the East Asia Summit – so that the global order can accommodate China’s weight. 

Asia Today

It is incomplete to think of Asia purely in terms of China, important as China is.  And to understand Asia today, we need to have an understanding of the past. 

The region is no stranger to periods of intense conflict, political unrest and strategic instability. 

In the 13th century, as the fourth Crusade began in Europe, Genghis Kan and his Mongol army successfully invaded China and Korea, and might well have conquered Japan too, had it not been for bad weather.

In the past two thousand years, China has experienced numerous civil wars. It is estimated that China’s three most lethal civil wars – the Three Kingdoms War in 220-280 AD resulting in 40 million deaths; the An Lushan Rebellion of 755-763 AD resulting in a further 36 million deaths; and the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 with estimates of those killed ranging from 20 to 100 million – are collectively responsible for the deaths of as many as 176 million people. 

In the last century in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Sino Japanese War resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. Such history continues to be reflected in the tensions between Korea, China and Japan, 70 years on.

History and how it is recorded is a powerful influence on how countries behave towards each other and it can be argued that Europe is just as influenced by its own history. 

The Second World War has been viewed as a Western, European conflict – the seeds of which lay very much in the fallout from the First World War. However, it was also an Asian and Pacific conflict triggered by tensions and rivalries within Asia – many of which remain today.

The end of the war in the Pacific through the US deployment of nuclear weapons against Japan has resonated through the decades.

In Myanmar, the Karen National Liberation Army has been fighting Burma’s central Government for the past 60 years, making this the longest running contemporary civil war.

Although the Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953, the two states on the Korean Peninsula remain technically at war, with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, an additional element for deep concern.

European colonialism added a further layer of strategic complexity. The ASEAN grouping came into being, in part, as an Asian organisation united against colonialism.

It is in the context of this complex and volatile history that we must, at least in part, consider the rising military spending across Asia and the effect of the US rebalance to Asia.

In terms of sheer hard power, consider the following:

Between 2004 and 2014, military spending in southern, eastern and northern Asia rose almost 75 percent in real terms.  This reflects national concerns about the strategic outlook for the region and an understandable desire amongst the countries of the region to help shape the strategic environment through stronger defence capabilities. 

In 2012 the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that the volume of arms transfer into Southeast Asia had grown by 200 per cent since the end of the Vietnam War, with naval weapons forming the bulk of the purchases.

China is now the world’s second largest military spender, after the United States. 

Recent estimates are that China’s total military expenditure in 2014 was US$216 billion, an increase in real terms of 200 percent since 2005.

India is expected to spend US$100 billion over the next decade on defence modernisation, including 8 new maritime patrol planes, six indigenously built conventional submarines and a second indigenously built aircraft carrier.

Russia is talking up its so called ‘pivot’ to Asia. On current planning, a large scale revamp of its Pacific fleet will see it grow from Russia’s smallest to its largest naval deployment over the next decade.

Vietnam boosted its defence spending by over 100 percent in real terms between 2004 and 2014, the largest increase amongst Southeast Asian countries.

This is being played out across Asia to a varying degree.

Together with rising territorial tensions in the South China Seas, this has led to speculation that we are witnessing an arms race taking place in Asia.

While it is prudent to have a clear eyed view of developments, it would be wrong to assume that we are headed for an inevitable regional conflict. Economic integration is a powerful buffer against conflict. 


The economic developments in Asia that I have spoken of are reshaping the global order.

But what needs to be understood is that the so called rise of China and relative decline of the United States and Europe does not have to signal a wrenching hegemonic transition and disruption to the international global order. 

An Asian centred world order will only rise to ascendancy if the western centred system fragments into an array of bilateral and ‘mini lateral’ arrangements. This will conceivably cause the world to be broken into competing US and Chinese spheres. The more security and economic relations are multi lateral and all encompassing, the more the global system will retain its coherence. 

An alternative view to the Asian rise and the Western decline however is that overall there is diffusion of power occurring, including not only to emerging and regional powers but also to many private and transnational groups. This is also assisted by the advancements in technology which allow many more voices to be heard both globally and within states. 

Whilst nation states struggle with internal domestic politics, it is imperative that they remain committed to the current rules based global order. All nations’ security and prosperity relies on peaceful resolution of disputes, open trade and unfettered access to global commons to support economic development.

In a world as uncertain and complex as the one in which we now live, it is the intention of the Australian Government—as was outlined in our 2016 Defence White Paper—to continue to work with allies, including the United Kingdom, to address common threats to a peaceful, prosperous and rules-based global order.

In the UK, Australia has a natural and likeminded partner on most global issues.  Our bilateral relationship is grounded in substantial people-to-people links and a significant economic and trade relationship.  And the government-to-government relationship - in intelligence, in defence, in foreign policy - is unparalleled.  Our shared heritage, common values and closely aligned strategic outlook reflect themselves in the common threads in our foreign and domestic policies.

In 1915, on the Gallipoli Peninsular, Australia and the UK fought side by side to advance our shared commitment to peace and stability.  Over 100 years later, we remain indispensable allies and trusted friends, well placed—in terms of like-mindedness, interoperability, capability and willingness—to work together to overcome the challenges of the future. 


About the Speaker

His Excellency The Honourable Alexander Downer AC was appointed Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom in May 2014. Alexander Downer retired from politics in 2008 after a distinguished career spanning twenty three years. He was Australia’s longest serving Foreign Minister from March 1996 to December 2007.  He was Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Parliamentary Liberal Party from May 1994 to January 1995. Alexander held senior political advisory roles with former Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Fraser, and Federal Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Andrew Peacock, before entering Parliament as the Member for Mayo in 1984. In January 2013, Alexander was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) for his distinguished service as Foreign Minister. He is also a Senior Associate Fellow of RUSI.

The Gallipoli Memorial Lecture was, until 2001, held annually at Eltham Church in south-east London. Subsequently, the Gallipoli Memorial Lecture Trust requested that RUSI carry on the tradition of an annual lecture. Lectures have since been delivered on the great issues of present day defence and security.

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