Australia adrift and a foreign minister all at sea

Apr 20, 2023
Penny Wong - DFAT official photo

On Monday, Penny Wong delivered her much awaited address to the National Press Club. What a disappointment! So many words, and so little substance. One could dismiss the episode as just another case of a minister who’s not up to the task. Unfortunately, the speech points to a deeper ailment – a government oblivious to the dangers ahead, and incapable of steering the ship to safer waters.

Three catchphrases dominate: regional balance of power, national interest, and strategic competition. All three terms, used repeatedly and without explanation, are out of an outdated vocabulary far removed from the present international reality.

The underlying narrative is obvious enough. Penny Wong finds much that is wrong with the world: “Coercive trade measures; unsustainable lending; political interference; disinformation; and reshaping international rules, standards and norms”. For each of these she has one culprit in mind: China.

In case of any lingering doubt in the minds of the audience, she goes on to spell out China’s other misdeeds: its rapidly rising defence budget, its militarisation of disputed islands in the South China Sea, its ballistic missiles falling in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and its military drills and blockades around Taiwan.

Strangely missing from the narrative is any reference to America’s longstanding containment of China. No mention of America’s overwhelming military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, its alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia or its extensive security arrangements with Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand, and Pakistan.

Nothing said about the stationing of US troops on foreign soil, including 25,000 troops in South Korea and close to 54,000 military personnel and some 8,000 civilian employees in Japan, to which must be added the 5,000 troops and multiple military bases stationed in Guam.

Thirty years after the end of the Cold War the United States still has well over 750 bases in at least 70 countries. Since 2000, it has engaged in at least 11 wars, the equivalent of one every 2 years, often without UN authorisation, and continues to carry out periodic foreign assassinations. None of this, it seems, is worthy of mention. It is simply accepted as normal, and in keeping with an international rules based order.

China does not even begin to match this global projection of military power. Its decision to militarise islands around several reefs in the disputed Spratlys is an unwelcome development. But so are America’s ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ in the South China Sea, and the steady expansion of its naval and aerial presence in and around the Taiwan Strait, actions the Australian government actively supports.

Wong speaks glibly of balance, but the intention is clear. It has little to do with balance, and everything to do with maintaining an overwhelming US military presence in the region. Regardless of America’s excesses, and the heavy costs these have inflicted on many nations, not least in Asia-Pacific region, the United States is described as “our closest ally and principal strategic partner”. It is only US engagement, we are told, that guarantees the stability, prosperity and security of our region. It has been and remains the “indispensable power”.

The inescapable conclusion is that Australia remains comfortable with its deepening integration into US strategic planning. And equally comfortable with its overriding objective which is to maintain regional and global dominance in an international order where it sets the rules that others must dutifully obey.

This one-sided view of the world provides the setting for the minister’s fascination with the “national interest”. After all, how can a government be taken to task for its strong commitment to the national interest? Governments everywhere defend their actions, however ill advised, by strenuously arguing that they serve the national interest. Was it not Trump’s mantra to “make America great again”?

If talk of the national interest is to be at all credible, it has to be invested with real meaning. Penny Wong’s address is replete with such terms as “our interests”, “our values”, “stability”, “security”, “prosperity”. But these are little more than platitudes unless they are carefully defined, and the means by which they are to be pursued are clearly explained.

The foreign minister tells us “We need to harness all elements of our national power to advance our interests”. But which interests and with what kind of power? The government, she goes on, wants to “avert war and maintain peace.” A war over Taiwan, we are told, would be “catastrophic”, and must be avoided. At first sight, these are laudable aims, except that they are mired in confusion and contradiction.

There is no serious discussion of the Taiwan problem, no analysis of the sharply rising tensions and nothing about ways of easing those tensions. We are simply left with the impression that it’s all the fault of China’s “unilateral” and provocative actions.

No mention of Nancy Pelosi’s provocative visit to Taiwan last August or of her successor’s equally provocative meeting with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen just two weeks ago. No suggestion either of any discomfort with Biden’s repeated pledge to use military force should China decide to intervene in Taiwan, even though such intervention remains unlikely unless provoked by a unilateral declaration of Taiwanese independence.

What are we left with? A policy of confrontation through strength. China’s ‘aggressive rise’ is to be contained by US military might, with Australia’s active and enthusiastic support. What this involves is now well known:

  • Rapidly expanding joint military exercises with the US, Japan, and the Philippines
  • Establishment of the AUKUS security partnership
  • Increasing emphasis on Quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD) which links Australia, India, Japan and the United States
  • The decision to purchase a fleet of eight nuclear powered submarines at a conservatively estimated cost of $368 billion
  • An increasing US military footprint in northern Australia
  • A substantial rise in military spending likely to be accelerated in the upcoming national budget.
  • Frenetic efforts to ensure the Pacific Islands remain firmly within the US/Australian strategic orbit.

What will these policies achieve? Will China feel intimidated? Not likely.

Will it abandon its reunification objective or its territorial claims in the South China Sea? Will it refrain from using force should Taiwan declare its independence? Will it retreat from developing its Belt and Road Initiative into a vast economic and geopolitical Eurasian zone of influence? Not likely.

The address to the National Press Club leaves us none the wiser as to the government’s plans for promoting peace and stability in the region. Are there any plans to breathe new life into existing multilateral institutions, notably the UN Security Council, the G20, and importantly the Asia-Pacific security architecture?

If this were the case, Australia would be acting in concert with other small and middle powers, especially in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. It would be engaged in active listening to what they are saying. It has much to learn.

For the Pacific Island nations, two demands stand out: much bolder efforts on climate change and decisive action to eliminate nuclear weapons. There is no hint here that Australia is about to commit to either. On the phasing out of coal in our economy and signing up to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, we have deafening silence.

When it comes to our engagement with Asia much emphasis is placed on the lure of increased trade and investment, but remarkably little about active consultation with neighbours, notably Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, let alone China. The possibilities for joint initiatives in conflict resolution, mediation, peacekeeping, peace building, disarmament or arms control are conveniently ignored.

It is clear that for now our engagement with Asia remains tied to the emotional vestiges of Western dominance and the psychology of dependence on the US military alliance. This is not a government that feels comfortable outside the Anglosphere, that wants to connect with the histories, cultures, languages, and aspirations of our neighbours, or that is in any way attuned to political dialogue across the cultural and civilisational divide.



Conversation at the Crossroads

Professor Camilleri is hosting a forum for Conversation at the Crossroads on these issues: “Australia Adrift in the Turublent Seas of China-US Rivalry” with Dr Scott Burchill as guest speaker. TUESDAY 2nd MAY. Full details here.

Special Webinar on the Rising Danger of Nuclear War with DANIEL ELLSBERG

Readers are also warmly invited to a timely and remarkable event this Friday 21 April 2.00 pm (PDT), New York 5.00 pm, London 10.00 pm  Saturday 22 April 7.00 am (AEST).

Register here.

A timely event: Remarkable because of the gravity of the situation we are facing. Some would say “alarmist talk”. Perhaps. But the warnings issued by UN Secretary-General António Guterres have been consistent and direct. Humanity, he tells us is “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”.

Recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer and given only only a few months to live, he will deliver the keynote address on our options as we respond to a world fraught with tension and uncertainty.

He will be joined by eminent scholars Professor Richard Falk and Dr Zia Mian.

An event not to be missed – that will long stay with you.

To join us, please register here, and extend the invitation to friends, colleagues and others in your network. All are welcome.

Richard Falk, Joseph Camilleri and Chandra Muzaffar
SHAPE Co-Conveners

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