Scott Morrison has delivered a thinly-veiled swipe at China, warning economic coercion and cyber attacks are becoming the new “tool of statecraft” of authoritarian regimes.
The prime minister on Thursday declared liberal values were “under assault” in a world increasingly threatened by authoritarianism, urging democracies to stick together in the Indo-Pacific.
“There is a great polarisation that our world is at risk of moving towards,” he said.
“A polarisation between authoritarian regimes and autocracies, and the liberal democracies that we love.
“A liberal democracy and a liberal set of values that underpin the global world order that has delivered so much for the world.”
Mr Morrison made the comments to the Raisina Dialogue, a multicultural meeting held annually in New Delhi, where he urged Australia and India to maintain a “shared mission” in the Indo-Pacific.
The prime minister warned the region of “great promise” was increasingly becoming the focus of authoritarian regimes.
“We’re not blind to the geopolitical realities. The Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of strategic competition,” he said.
“Cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated, including from state-sponsored actors, and frequent.
“Economic coercion is being employed as a tool of statecraft.
“Liberal rules and norms are under assault.”
The comments were an apparent reference to an ongoing trade assault launched by Beijing against Australia, seemingly prompted by Canberra’s push for an independent probe into the origins of COVID-19.
The Australian National University was also rocked by a cyber attack in 2018, which the federal government attributed to a “state actor”, widely believed to be China.
Earlier this month, Mr Morrison joined a historic four-way meeting of the Quad, where he discussed the Indo-Pacific with US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
It was the first time talks between the Quad – a strategic alliance between the four countries – were attended by its members’ leaders.
“That meeting was historic, a historic first and a mark of the momentum that continues to be built amongst like-minded countries in our region,” Mr Morrison said.
“Four leaders of great liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific … all leveraging our agency, working on a positive and inclusive agenda for the Indo-Pacific.”
It comes after Mr Morrison’s former colleague Christopher Pyne warned Australia faced a potential war with China in the Indo-Pacific within the next decade.
The former defence minister said China’s strategic posture was “no longer benign”.
“The reality is that China is confident and capable and is not embarrassed to show it,” he said.
“Five years ago, I would’ve said that the possibility (of war) was very unlikely. Now, I would have to say that the possibility is more likely than it was then.
“Not a cyber war, but a real one involving loss of life, destruction of military platforms, with aggressors and defenders on different sides.
“This isn’t rhetoric, this is something that you and I may well have to confront in the next five to 10 years.”