Strategic Forum 2020

18 November 2020

Mike Henry, CEO

The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership last Sunday was significant and timely, and gives cause for optimism.

The ASEAN nations together with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand have committed themselves to closer trade and more open markets. China has played a leadership role in making RCEP a reality, and Australia has championed the agreement over the eight years of debate and discussion that have led now to the joint signing.

It is encouraging that, in spite of the challenges of COVID, parties have worked quietly and effectively to create in RCEP the foundations for stronger regional and bilateral partnerships.

And when you consider that RCEP was formalised in a virtual meeting – surely a first for an agreement of this magnitude – we can see that the power of common interests was able to transcend both distance and competing priorities.

The opportunity ahead is to not only implement RCEP effectively but also to build on the momentum created by the agreement. This will generate new opportunities for collaboration and to reinvigorate important relationships, including possibly taking the first available opportunity for national leaders to meet face to face to celebrate their accomplishment and forge even closer ties.

The example set by the RCEP signing could not have come at a more important time.

The very nature of the pandemic has unfortunately caused many nations to retreat inward – politically, socially, and economically.

Overcoming and recovering from COVID is going to require a collective and collaborative approach on a truly global basis. We must return the world to growth to help improve living standards and do it in a way that is sustainable and benefits all. For us to ‘build back better’, we must ‘build back better, together’.

This collective and collaborative approach will also be required for some of the other challenges confronting the world. Some problems transcend borders.

One such challenge we currently face is tension in international relations. This is antithetical to the prosperity of Australia, and indeed the world. It is a trend that is in all of our interests to work to turn around.

Australia is positioned to demonstrate to others the importance of investing in relationships and the power of trade. We have demonstrated for decades a firm belief in cooperation and collaboration in our region and beyond. The Australian Government’s leadership together with China and other nations to finalise RCEP is such an example.

Other nations may aspire to succeed in self-sufficiency and autonomy. Australia simply isn’t built to succeed under this model. Our strength lies not in shutting ourselves in, but in being able to access the rest of the world – to export our resources, our services and our know-how.

The benefits of this approach multiply at home through employment, economic contribution and the creation of broader social value.

The principles of the Bretton Woods agreement - free markets, open trade and economic development - must be reinvigorated and renewed for the challenges the world faces today.

However, in doing so, I agree with the Treasurer, that they must also be modernised. The larger Asian economies should be afforded a greater seat at the table and in shaping the rules of the game. The fact that RCEP nations comprise almost 30 per cent of global GDP shows how important it is that this be the case.

Given its relationships and intellectual capital, there is a key role for Australia in exercising influence towards this outcome and in championing the underpinning intent, just as we have done throughout the RCEP development process. While we are ultimately reliant on countries acting in good faith, we have to ensure we are doing absolutely everything in our power to secure Australia’s continued prosperity through mutually beneficial trade and co-operation.

I firmly believe it’s in Australia’s national interest to work with our partners, as we have done in the past.

In closing, I believe there is an immense opportunity as the world emerges from the pandemic. For that good to be realised, it will be essential that we work together on increasing productivity and prosperity on the home front while at the same time ensuring we can play to our strengths in providing the commodities, the services, and the technical know-how the world needs to once again, grow.

I am optimistic about our future, and I look forward to hearing the discussion generated over the next two days at the forum.