Anthony Albanese has warned against “harmful” assumptions that the US and China are heading towards an inevitable war, and called for “practical structures to prevent a worst-case scenario”.
The Australian prime minister said a war in the Indo-Pacific would be “devastating for the world” and used a keynote speech to a regional security summit in Singapore to urge all countries to uphold peace and stability.
Albanese also sought to reassure countries in the region that remain wary about Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under the Aukus pact.
“In boosting our nation’s defence capability, Australia’s goal is not to prepare for war but to prevent it, through deterrence and reassurance and building resilience in the region.”
Albanese said it must be “crystal clear that when it comes to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force – be it in Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea or elsewhere – the risk of conflict will always far outweigh any potential reward”.
The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, and the Chinese defence minister, Li Shangfu, are among security officials and analysts from more than 40 countries attending the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue.
Albanese is accompanied on the trip by his defence minister, Richard Marles, who is expected to meet with Li this weekend. Marles attended the same summit last year in what marked the end of China’s freeze on high-level dialogue with Australia.
Albanese said it was “dangerously wrong” for anyone to describe the region as “a potential ‘theatre’ for conflict, as if this is merely a backdrop, a location, an arena for the ambitions of others”.
The prime minister said no one should dismiss “the agency and ambition of a majority of the world’s population and the engine room of the global economy” or see the future of the region as a “foregone conclusion”.
He drew parallels to “flawed” and “complacent” assumptions after the cold war that globalisation and free trade would create a more open, stable world.
Albanese pointed to “the rise of nativism and isolationism” and “the biggest conventional military build-up since the second world war” – the latter referring to China.
But he said the fate of the Indo-Pacific was “not preordained”.
“To move from imagining conflict is impossible to assuming war is inevitable is just as harmful to our shared goals,” he said.
Albanese sought to reassure south-east Asia that his government sees the region in positive terms, not just as a venue for geopolitical rivalry.
“I can assure you that when Australia looks north, we don’t see a void for others to impose their will,” he said. “We see a community of nations whose actions and decisions are essential to building prosperity and preserving peace in the Indo-Pacific.”
Albanese also said the citizens of the region had shown “an unflinching commitment” to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. He described such weapons as “destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate” and called for cooperative action to “drive disarmament”.
Backing the concept of “guardrails” to manage tensions between the US and China, Albanese said Australia strongly supported the Biden administration’s push to establish “reliable and open channels of communication” with Beijing.
“This isn’t about a policy of containment; it’s not a question of placing obstacles in the way of any nation’s progress or potential,” he said.
“This is a matter of simple, practical structures to prevent a worst-case scenario.”
He said despite a difference of “worldviews” and “values”, Australia was placing dialogue at the heart of its efforts to stabilise relations with China.
“Because the alternative – the silence of the diplomatic deep freeze – only breeds suspicion, only makes it easier for nations to attribute motive to misunderstanding, to assume the worst of one another,” Albanese said.
Albanese urged China to remove “impediments” to trade with Australia.
The federal opposition has backed dialogue with China but has started to question whether it is leading to tangible outcomes.
The shadow foreign minister, Simon Birmingham, told ABC Radio National on Friday that China was “continuing to impose punishment and coercion upon Australia”.