Global Threats and Regional Challenges: An Asia-Pacific Perspective


Speaker: Ms Gillian Bird, Deputy Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

2005 Australia Group Plenary, Sydney

20 April 2005

Ms Gillian Bird

Distinguished delegates, friends of the Australia Group, ladies and gentlemen.

As a former Chair of the Australia Group, I am very pleased to be able to address you this evening on the occasion of the Group's twentieth anniversary.

Let me also extend a warm welcome to erstwhile colleagues who made valuable contributions to the Group in past years.  Among those here tonight are Peter Furlonger and Ron Walker.  I would especially like to acknowledge Ron's energy and vision in establishing the Group.

The Australia Group has a well-earned reputation as a bulwark against the spread of chemical and biological weapons.  After 20 years, it continues to form an effective proliferation barrier, owing in large part to the Group's responsiveness to new threats and a growing international acceptance of the benchmarks it sets.

This is not, however, to underestimate the significant challenges now facing the Group and, indeed, the broader international community.

The proliferation threat is far from abating, and we can no longer trace it to a handful of maverick states.  The spread of WMD is closely enmeshed with other major international security concerns - most notably, terrorism and weak and failing states.  Increasingly, we need to develop an integrated approach if we are to address these challenges successfully.

The Proliferation Security Initiative has been a highly practical response to increasing concerns over changing proliferation and procurement trends.  Its focus on interdicting illicit WMD-related trade protects as much against weak export controls in less developed countries, as against wilful proliferators.

Unanimous adoption last April of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 is also a welcome development.  The resolution commits states to adopting effective legislative and other measures, including export controls, to stop proliferation activity by non-state actors.

For its part, the Australia Group is profitably focusing on difficult challenges to existing export control measures posed by terrorism and brokering.

Since this is the first time that the Australia Group has met in Australia, it is only fitting that I provide you with an Australian view on global security challenges - and new measures for dealing with them - as seen from the particular circumstances of the Asia-Pacific region.

Threats in the Asia-Pacific region

The Asia-Pacific region is no stranger to threats posed by WMD proliferation, terrorism or weak and failing states.

Several countries of proliferation concern - or their agents and brokers - have sought to divert illicit WMD-related trade via what are some of the busiest, most strategically located air and sea ports in the world.  Few Asian countries have export and transhipment control legislation in place.  Even fewer can back such legislation up with effective enforcement.

Looming large as a major destabilising factor in the region is North Korea's nuclear weapons program, coupled with the unpredictability of its political leadership.

While efforts to bring North Korea back to the six-party talks continue, its proliferation activities go on.  The DPRK's WMD procurement programs and missile exports have been able to exploit wide gaps in the region's non-proliferation architecture.

Several regional countries are also developing manufacturing capabilities for dual-use items, but whose export they do not control.  In the face of stiff export controls in traditional supplier countries, the procurement network formerly operated by Abdul Qadeer Khan turned to a Malaysian company to source centrifuge parts for Libya's nuclear program.

Terrorism is an invidious problem in several regional countries, particularly in Indonesia and The Philippines.

Alarmingly, at least one regional group - Jemaah Islamiyah - has close links with Al Qaida, together with its resources and networks.  The willingness of JI to kill innocents is only too familiar for Australia and other countries represented here, whose nationals perished so tragically in the bombings in Bali.

There is also clear evidence of regional terrorist organisations' interest in developing chemical and biological weapons.  Last year, a police raid on the house of an alleged Jemaah Islamiyah operative in the southern Philippines discovered a JI training manual for chemical and biological terrorism.  The chances of terrorists developing crude chemical, biological or radiological devices are enhanced by lax security of sources in many regional countries.

Global implications

Of course, the strategic implications of these threats are not limited to the Asia-Pacific region.  International security today is becoming ever more indivisible - what happens in one region increasingly impacts on others.  Proliferation and security threats originating in the Asia-Pacific have the potential for devastating impact elsewhere.

Let me provide two sobering examples.

North Korean missiles pose a threat not just to Asian neighbours.  Pyongyang's aggressive export activity will potentially place a number of European cities within range of missiles being developed with DPRK assistance in Middle Eastern countries.  Such a capability could have dire consequences, given the inherent instability in the Middle East.

An even more ominous situation has been avoided by Libya's renunciation of its WMD programs.  The centrifuge parts sourced through the A Q Khan network in Malaysia could have made a crucial contribution to Libya's nuclear program.  As important as this regional contribution might have been, the strategic implications of a nuclear-armed Libya would have been far less a consideration for Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries than for North Africa and Europe.

I could provide more such examples.  Their purpose is clear.  Shortfalls in regional non-proliferation controls have global implications - and we, as likeminded countries, need to work together to address them.

To this end, it is vital that we learn from each other about the region-specific challenges we face in working together to increase acceptance of global non-proliferation norms.

Australian responses

Australia has been working hard to ensure that regional responses to proliferation and other security challenges develop in the direction of international measures and benchmarks.

Australia's active engagement on strengthening multilateral treaties - the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention - is well known.  But we have also worked assiduously at the regional level to secure better understanding of treaty implementation issues.

An Asia-Pacific conference on nuclear safety and security issues, hosted by the Australian Foreign Minister in Sydney last November, addressed the threat posed by nuclear proliferation among states and the emerging risks of nuclear terrorism.  Participating countries agreed on the need for a sustained and comprehensive effort to enhance the nuclear safeguards and security framework.  Circulation of the conference outcomes statement at the forthcoming NPT Review Conference will serve to highlight firm regional resolve behind this commitment.

The Regional BWC Workshop we co-hosted with Indonesia in Melbourne in February elicited similarly constructive particiaption from ASEAN countries.  A follow-up workshop is planned for early next year in Indonesia.

We have also considerably expanded our bilateral outreach activities.  These activities are chiefly aimed at providing assistance and training on export control measures, including model legislation, control lists, industry awareness raising, licensing arrangements and enforcement.  They are very much in the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, but have a much wider dimension in seeking to enhance measures directed against proliferation activity by state as well as non-state actors.

Among activities undertaken over the past year, Australia has provided nuclear safeguards and export control training to Thailand, deepened its consultations with China on counter-proliferation issues, and consulted with Indonesia and The Philippines on possible assistance measures.

We are also expanding our cooperation with potential strategic regional partners - notably, Singapore and Thailand - to advance discussion of non-proliferation issues, including enhancement of export controls, in APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

Australia is working closely with Japan and the United States in developing a more strategic approach to outreach in the region, with a view to maximising what we can achieve using our respective resources and expertise.  Given the small number of partner countries in the region, we would of course welcome increased cooperation on outreach activities with other countries with less immediate regional proliferation concerns.

Further afield, we have begun looking at synergies between counter-proliferation and counter-terrorism activities in our region.  We now have in place a network of ten counter-terrorism memoranda of understanding, which could provide a basis for increasing our cooperation on counter-proliferation measures with key regional partners.   One example is our role in promoting tighter controls on Man-Portable Air Defence Systems, following on from Australia's lead on last year's UN General Assembly resolution.

Collaboration between police and border control agencies pursuant to these MOUs has proved to be an effective mechanism for sharing information on terrorist groups and their movements across the region.  Contacts in these areas have been enhanced by regional initiatives such as the Bali Ministerial Meeting on Counter-Terrorism and the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation, which bring together regional law enforcement officials for training and other activities.

Strong counter-terrorism cooperation in these and other areas, such as anti-terrorist financing, will help to restrict terrorists' access to WMD.

At the same time, we will continue to build a closer appreciation of the particular security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region for the large number of likeminded countries outside the region.

In the Australia Group, we have reported extensively on our work under our action plan for the Asia-Pacific region.  Australia has also pointed out the need for a regional approach to the PSI.

Currently, the PSI enjoys only modest expressed support in the Asia-Pacific region where it is sometimes perceived as a self-interested coalition working beyond, or at the margins, of international law.  This perception is wrong.

The challenge for supporters of the PSI is to persuade all countries in the region that interdiction of illicit trafficking of WMD materials and delivery systems is a regional and global security interest, and that the PSI can only work when it is anchored in domestic and international legal frameworks.  We need to be sensitive and enterprising in getting these messages across.


As members of the Australia Group, all of us here tonight are united in our determination to make a practical and effective contribution to the fight against the spread of chemical and biological weapons.

A particular perspective that Australia brings to the Group's work is our concern about the dimensions of the proliferation challenge in our own region.

The Asia-Pacific, as a regional dynamo of the global economy, is already the focus of enhanced outreach by the Australia Group.  In coming years, we can only expect the need to address the specific non-proliferation challenges posed in this region to increase.

Clearly, we need to see the Asia-Pacific as more than a booming market.  As we expand our political and economic relationships with regional countries, we must be alert to the region's security challenges and the global implications they can have.

Australia, for its part, will continue to promote the regional approach to proliferation challenges, pioneered by the Australia Group, in other regimes and initiatives.  At the same time, we remain ready to build cooperation with likeminded countries to expand support in the Asia-Pacific for effective non-proliferation.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014