It’s an honour to be at a conference such as this, that brings people together, from different countries, to work for the betterment of mankind, based on all that we have in common.
It’s so fitting that we meet here in India, the world’s largest democracy – also one of the world’s oldest democracies – a nation that’s endured partition, war, poverty, and the wet blanket of low expectations, yet is now the world’s fastest growing large economy, and a bastion of the freedom that’s under sudden and unexpected challenge.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism was supposed to mark the final triumph of liberal capitalism.
It certainly ushered-in the best times in human history.
In 1990, more than 30 per cent of the world’s people lacked access to safe drinking water and lived in absolute poverty. By 2020, fewer than 10 per cent were so afflicted. And in the quarter century up to 2020, more wealth was created than in the previous 25,000 years.
The world has been richer, safer, freer, fairer – and yes greener too – than ever before.
Even in Africa, and in much of the Middle East, living standards have been rising; and in countries such as India, China, Indonesia, Turkey, Thailand and Vietnam, something like a billion people have moved from the third world to the middle class in scarcely a generation.
Our task is to keep this momentum – each of us doing our bit towards it, in our families, in our workplaces, in our neighbourhoods, and in our personal networks, as well as on a bigger stage, striving to be our best selves, individually and collectively; and striving to help others be their best selves: more thoughtful, more industrious, more creative, and more generous-spirited.
Because history hasn’t ended: the pandemic, the Ukraine war, and the deepening strategic shadow between the Middle Kingdom and all who won’t kowtow, are unwelcome reminders that liberty and prosperity have to be earned rather than taken for granted.
For the first time in decades, at least for now, we’re becoming poorer, not richer: due to supply chain disruptions from war and lockdown, due to the economic de-coupling from a China that’s weaponised trade, due to demand-driven and then cost-push inflation that wages can’t match, and due to governments that don’t know when to leave well-enough alone.
Today, we’re talking about “Nations as Brands”.
At one level, I suppose this means the association between countries and products: like Scotch whiskey, French champagne, and Swiss watches.
At another level, it might mean the association of countries with ideas: like British justice, Italian style, or Japanese theatre.
As my history teacher used to say of Australia: the English made the laws, the Scots made the money, and the Irish made the songs.
If Australia has a “brand”, I guess it’s a land of sun and surf; of kangaroos and koalas; of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and an Opera House to match the Taj Mahal, in sheer breath-taking magnificence; plus a welcoming magnet to people from all over the world, including almost a million from India, who’ve found that if you have a fair go, you’ll get one.
At a deeper level, that’s what it’s about: whether countries can be trusted to “do to others as they’d have done to them” – because what country wants to be branded as a menace?
Like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as the new tsar seeks to recreate Peter the Great’s empire, by bullying any neighbour that wants to look west rather than east.
It’s not NATO that’s sought to expand; it was always the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe, fearful of being coerced, begging to join.
I’m sure that “brand” is the least of Ukraine’s concerns, just now, but in standing-up so successfully for its freedom and its independence, there’d be no more-admired country, anywhere on Earth today.
And in telling his US counterpart that he wanted weapons to fight with, not a helicopter ride to safety, there’d be no more revered leader right now than Volodymyr Zelensky.
But Russia is not the only tarnished brand.
There’s Beijing’s threat to ASEAN: “China is a big country and you are small countries and that is a fact”. In other words, the strong do what they will while the weak suffer what they must.
Having strangled the “one country, two systems” freedom of Hong Kong, the red emperor’s next move is swiftly conquering Taiwan on his proclaimed path of avenging the century of humiliation and making China the world’s number one country by mid-century.
Naturally, the commissars in Beijing are determined to crush liberal, pluralist, democratic Taiwan because it’s living, breathing proof that there’s no totalitarian gene in the Chinese DNA.
What branding, we should ask, does a country get when it militarises the South China Sea in defiance of international law, imprisons a million Uighurs, bullies all its neighbours (including India), and arrests without charge, imprisons without trial, and detains without limit, not just its own citizens but even the Australian journalist Cheng Lei?
Well, according to the Lowy poll, only 12 per cent of Australians now say they trust China, a 40 point decrease in just four years; 75 cent say that it’s likely China will be a military threat to Australia in the next two decades, that’s up 29 points in just four years; 87 per cent say they’re concerned about the “no limits” partnership between Putin and Xi Jinping; and almost twice as many Australians regard China as more of a security threat than an economic partner, even though 30 per cent of our exports still go to China.
Yet it’s not the Chinese people that Australians worry about: the more than a million Australians of Chinese background are part of Team Australia and fret with the rest of us about the incalculable economic damage that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would do, let alone the catastrophe of a further, much bigger war, pitting democracy against dictatorship.
No. It’s not the Chinese people that are war-mongers, any more than the Russian people are; it’s just that dictatorships can’t reflect the “better angels of our nature” in the way that democracies do.
For war in East Asia to be avoided, and for life as we’ve known it not-to-be-upended, the cost of aggression has to be raised: it can’t just be big China versus little Taiwan.
China has to fear that Taiwan won’t be alone, and that any attack might unleash a conflict it could lose.
That’s why the Quad is so important, this partnership based on shared values without which the words of treaties and the structures of alliances mean little.
The Quad is not against anyone; its “brand” is a free and open Indo-Pacific, where commerce is expanding, where people can move around, and where countries’ sovereignty is respected.
After all, it was NATO that kept the peace in Europe, preventing nuclear war, for over 70 years, because it meant that small countries couldn’t be picked off by big ones.
And if the peace is to be kept in the Indo-Pacific, for generations to come, it will be the Quad that does it.
It’s said that success has many parents; so there have been many eager participants here, but really only two leaders.
First, the late Abe Shinzo, because only a fellow Asian could have nudged India away from its long-standing non-alignment.
And second, Narendra Modi, because only a global statesman could have turned the Quad from a low-key meeting of officials to a regular leaders’ summit of the world’s first and third largest economies, together with the world’s emerging democratic super-power.
And Australia’s there too – the country that’s the world’s ideal partner: big enough to be useful but not big enough to be difficult!
Reviving and enhancing the Quad was one of my main aims as prime minister. I’ve never had a conversation with Modi-ji that didn’t dwell on it, plus the Australia-India trade deal that I regard as an important economic arm to the Quad, and to the comprehensive strategic partnership that Australia and India now enjoy.
I’ve always regarded India as a much more natural partner for Australia than China, ever since I spent three months backpacking here, 40 years ago, much of it in Bihar, where the Australian Jesuits ran schools.
And I’m confident, that a couple of decades hence, India’s economy will surpass China’s, because it has the priceless gifts of democracy, the rule of law, and to a great extent, English, the world’s common language; so that it can be a country both creative and connected.
It’s sometime said that China is not an imperialist power. Say that to the Tibetans or to the Vietnamese. Or here in India, that’s been attacked at least twice.
While India’s wars have all been defensive. One was to create a new nation, Bangladesh, out of the ashes of the old Pakistan.
None of its neighbours fear India. Indeed, all look to it, especially Sri Lanka, as it wakes up from the madness of banning the most effective fertilisers.
Right now, some people who should know better, are questioning the quality of India’s democracy, with Freedom House labelling it only “partially free”, and Narendra Modi unfairly likened to Donald Trump.
Yet the test of a democracy is: “can the government change?” and “is the press free?” and, on that score, India is a palpable success, with government routinely changing hands, despite the BJP’s current dominance, and a riotously free media.
Recently marking the 75th anniversary of independence, Prime Minister Modi honoured the constitution drafters who’d proclaimed liberty, equality, justice and fraternity for all Indians and respect for all faiths. He called India the “mother of democracy”; and announced that as well as development, his goal was to eliminate all forms of discrimination and nepotism.
It’s telling, that just this week, the global head of Goldman Sachs has declared that this would be, not just an Indian decade, but an Indian century, because of the economic take-off now under way.
Sure, India isn’t perfect – nowhere is – but at least when things go wrong, there’s a judiciary to appeal to, plus a free media to speak truth to power.
So if the 19th century was British, and the 20th century American, a 21st century that’s Indian could help government to stay limited and the people to stay sovereign.
My strong instinct, is that if there is to be a free world, decades hence, it will be India that’s sustaining it. And if there’s to be a leader of the free world, why couldn’t it be the head of the world’s largest democracy, rather than just its richest?
How’s that for Brand India!