Remarks by Mr Peter Varghese AO, Chancellor of The University of Queensland and Chair of the Asialink Council to the Asialink/AIIA Conference on the thirtieth anniversary of the Cambodia Paris Peace Accords, 28 October 2021

I am delighted, as chair of the Asialink Council, to add my welcome to all participants and to thank the organisers of this conference to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Cambodia Paris Peace Accords.

Comedy and diplomacy share at least one important characteristic:  timing is everything.  And the Cambodia agreements are a good example.  Here was a complex problem at the intersection of the interests of the great powers, the major powers and the region.  And there is little doubt that the melting of the pack ice of the Cold War was a key factor in finding a way forward.  It opened up a space which had previously been closed by the rigidities of great power politics.

I will leave it to others more expert on the issues to discuss the negotiations leading up to the Accords and the broader lessons to be drawn about peacebuilding.  In these brief opening comments I want to focus more on the continuing importance of South East Asia to Australia.

For an organisation like Asialink, dedicated to a closer Australian engagement with Asia, the Paris Accords raise the interesting question of how Australia was able to contribute to the resolution of what had looked like an intractable problem.

Success of course has many authors and this was no exception.  But it is also the case that Australia played an outsized part in this particular success.  It is a case study in what can be achieved through a diplomacy which is focussed, nimble, open to change and adaptation and well resourced.  It is also an example of how idealism and realism can come together when the conditions are right and the political will is strong.

Cambodia was of course more than a regional issue but the region was at its heart.  And so for Australia it is a reminder of why South East Asia matters and why we should not lose our focus on it.

It is true that Australia’s strategic future is more likely to be shaped by the trajectory of US-China relations and developments in North East Asia rather than in South East Asia.  But it is also the case that South East Asia is Australia’s strategic hinterland.  Its internal stability and its external positioning are and will remain critical elements in Australia’s strategic peace of mind.

Today, we face the distinct possibility of a strategic faultline down the centre of our region.  There are those who blithely say we are already in a new cold war as if the radical decoupling of the global economy or the risk of a cold war turning hot and nuclear was some incidental price to pay for facing up to the perceived challenges of a China which seems intent on recreating the Middle Kingdom and becoming the hegemon of the region.

South East Asia is at the geographic centre of this shifting strategic environment.  It has no interest in a new cold war.  It wants a region which is not forced to choose.  It sees balance not hegemony as the best outcome.

Australia has its own perspective.  We navigate the strategic currents of the region from the perspective of a US ally.  We also do not want to be forced to choose between the US and China but if choose we must our choice is clear.  And in the meantime we wish both to engage China and to be part of constraining China through a reshaped balance of power in the Indo Pacific.

Where Australia and ASEAN share common ground is in recognising that preventing a new cold war in the Indo Pacific should be among our highest diplomatic priorities.  Indeed I would put it at the top of the list.

When strategic tensions rise our eyes tend to gravitate towards where strategic weight lies.  This means the US, China, Japan, Korea and increasingly India.  The countries of South East Asia lag considerably behind in strategic weight but they do possess geographic weight by virtue of their location across vital sea lanes and their maritime and mainland geography.  This gives them strategic significance even if they lack strategic fire power.

The US and China are driven by their own compulsions.  One is determined to retain its primacy.  The other equally determined to displace the US as the hegemon of the region.  The question is whether the tensions inherent in these competing strategic ambitions can be managed short of a new cold war.

There is nothing inevitable about a new cold war and much that is undesirable.  How the strategic competition between the US and China plays out will depend largely on their internal stability, economic strength, quality of leadership, ability to adapt and strategic good judgement.  All of those are open questions.

Now I share the view of my friend Bilahari Kausikan, from whom we will hear later, that the idea of a new cold war is an intellectually lazy one not least because today we live in a global economy and the Soviet Union was never the largest trading partner of the majority of the world’s nations.

But lazy ideas can still exert a firm grip on people who should know better which makes the urgency of stopping short of a new cold war all the more important.  Yes, we must prudently prepare for the possibility that we might fail in that endeavour but that does not mean that we should simply drift or sleepwalk into a new version of the cold war, much less become its cheerleader.  If the Paris Accords taught us anything it is that outcomes are rarely pre-determined and that diplomacy can have agency.

So let me conclude with this observation.  The Paris Accords showed how Australia and the countries of South East Asia could work together at the end of the real cold war.  Today our challenge is to work together to stop talking ourselves into a phony cold war.