Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has delivered an unusually pointed address at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Singapore, strongly defending the importance of liberal-democratic values.
Ms Bishop says the only countries in the world besides democracies to reach high-level prosperity have been a few oil-rich Middle Eastern states.
“While it is appropriate for different states to discover their own pathway leading toward political reform, history shows that embrace of liberal democratic institutions is the most successful foundation for nations seeking economic prosperity and social stability,” she said.
The Turnbull Government has carefully avoided directly criticising China up to now, especially over the tense South China Sea dispute.
But Ms Bishop left no question she was sending the message to China, urging it to join the “democratic community”.
She said democratisation would also help when it came to resolving agreements, as they could make use of the “domestic democratic habits of negotiating and compromise”, along with “international laws and rules.”
The Foreign Minister’s comments come as China’s Premier Li Keqiang is scheduled to visit Australia in the coming days.
They also come as combined military budgets in the Indo-Pacific are projected to pass $600 billion US by 2020, matching military spending in North America for the first time.
Further heightening tensions, a new report suggests Japan is likely to send its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea in May.
As China tries to work and negotiate individually with countries in the region, Ms Bishop has urged the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members to set an example.
“I note that ASEAN upholds democracy as one of its core values in the charter, and I urge ASEAN members to champion democratic norms and liberal institutions throughout the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
Ms Bishop has warned China’s rise as an economic partner and geopolitical and geo-strategic competitor with the United States and other nations brings challenges with it.
She cites, in particular, China — along with other countries — disputing maritime boundaries in the East and South China Seas.
The Foreign Minister recently met with top US officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser HR McMaster.
In her speech, she reaffirmed the Turnbull Government’s view that the United States is a crucial power in the region, and urged it to “continue to play the robust and constructive role that they have for many decades in preserving the peace.”
“If stability and prosperity are to continue, the United States must play an even greater role as the indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
Ms Bishop’s comments follow up on a speech she made earlier this year calling for the United States to engage more deeply with Asia and to recognise the rising uncertainty.
US president Donald Trump has questioned the value and cost of the network of US alliances established in the region after World War Two.
That has unnerved many countries in the region, especially amid North Korea’s continuing missile tests.