Australia’s future in Asia: bridge or spear?

Feb 8, 2023
Penny Wong - DFAT official photo

The perceptive Singaporian diplomat Kishore Mahbubani remarked recently that: ‘Australia’s strategic dilemma in the twenty-first century is simple: it can choose to be a bridge between East and West in the Asian Century—or the tip of the spear projecting Western power into Asia.’ He clearly believed that it was a matter of deliberate choice, a clear case of deciding on one course or the other.

All the evidence suggests that the Albanese government believes it can be both and doesn’t need to choose between diplomacy and peace on the one hand and rearmament and war on the other. Two senior ministers embody these contradictions—Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Penny Wong. Publicly they stand shoulder to shoulder but on closer inspection they are actually back to back looking, Janus like, in quite different directions. There is abundant evidence for this. They are engaged in covert, never mentioned competition for influence. In her now legendary first address to her department Wong announced that under the previous coalition governments DFAT had ‘lost influence’. She appealed to her staff to work with her to bring foreign affairs back to the centre of the Australian government, to be ‘more central and more persuasive’. Her ambition was to change how Australia was seen in the world. It was not to mollify but to advocate. What she was calling for was what she termed a ‘transformational’ foreign policy.

There is no evidence that either Albanese or Marles want to ‘transform’ either defence or foreign policies inherited from the Morrison government. Continuity rules. The Prime Minister recently explained that he would have signed up to the AUKUS agreement if he had been in power at the time and made it clear that exactly the same advisors who worked with Morrison were still at their desks. AUKUS, he declared, reaffirms the historical ties with Britain and the Unites States. Marles explained to a press conference in Washington that the coming years would see ‘an increased level of activity between our two countries across all domains, which will be really important…. we’re looking at increased force posture cooperation in enhancing the capacity of facilities in Australia.’ Morrison had referred to a ‘forever’ alliance with Britain and the United States. The new government talks of an ‘unbreakable’ alliance. Recently Albanese defended AUKUS because the bonds between the three nations were enduring. It was an arrangement ’between nations who are friends.’

In a recent and much publicised speech in Britain Wong remarked that the ‘250 year relationship between the two nations had changed and Australia now saw itself as part of the region ‘which had become the most consequential region of our time.’ She praised the work of former Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating who had both shifted Australia’s perspective towards Asia. She explained to her audience that we were now home to ‘people of more than 300 ancestries and the oldest continuing culture on earth.’ As a result Australia saw itself as being in the Indo-Pacific and more significantly ‘being of the Indo-Pacific.’ While speaking in Malaysia she observed that Australia was now part of Asia. She conceded that her predecessors had made the same claim but she was the first ‘to make these statements as an Australian foreign Minister who is from South East Asia.’ She told the Pacific Island’s Forum that the new multi-cultural Australia now had the capacity ‘to reach into every corner of the world and say, “we share common ground.”’ Foreign policy she explained ‘starts with who we are’ and therefore it was now time to stop championing the Anglosphere.

She was also sensitive to South-East Asian attitudes to defence, diplomacy and the contending claims of China and America. In a speech in Washington in December she observed that U.S policy needed to be ‘based on a clear understanding of what the rest of the Indo-Pacific wants.’ Above all the region was ‘not enthusiastic about great power competition’ and did not want to be forced to take sides. In her recent lecture in London she declared that all the countries in the region had to ask themselves ‘how we can each use our national power, our influence, our networks, our capabilities, to avert catastrophic conflict.’

Wong’s diplomacy is clearly undermined by our ratification of the AUKUS agreement which does two things. It confirms our apparently unbreakable ties with our ‘forever’ friends in the Anglosphere and an increasingly solidarity with NATO. The closer we are to the white mens’ clubs in Europe and North America the farther we away we are from Wong’s ambition to be seen as being both in the Indo-Pacific and, more significantly, of the Indo-Pacific .The heart of the matter is that there is only so much Wong can do to dispel the widely held perception that nothing much has changed. We still take much our news and many of opinions from London, Washington and New York. We clearly feel emotionally closer to Ukraine than to Myanmar or even to West Papua. In a recent article on Wong’s diplomacy for the Lowy Institute James Chin observed that:

The biggest problem is the widely held perception among the Southeast Asian elites that Australia is “deputy sheriff” to the United States and will always support the US position when the chips are down. Many are sceptical that Wong (or anyone else) can change this position in the foreseeable future.

He added that AUKUS and the Quad reinforced this view and that current events meant that Australia would inevitably move even closer to the Western camp in the foreseeable future. And above all if there was one thing Southeast Asian countries hated it was ‘forcing them to take sides.’

Australia has taken sides. Mike Green of Sydney’s American Studies Centre remarked recently that we are at ‘the pointy end of the spear’ in the confrontation with China and this made us more valuable to Washington. We have chosen to seek security from Asia rather than security in Asia in the company of our ‘forever friends’ on the far side of the world. The nuclear submarines which come with AUKUS are not designed to defend the continent and its nearby waters but to attack China. Marles argues that they will enhance our sovereignty and make ‘the rest of the world take us seriously.’ But at the heart of the vast expenditure is the conviction that if you seek peace you must prepare for war. Does the reckless folly of this belief have to be relearnt every generation or two? It is nuclear submarines today. It was dreadnoughts in the years before 1914 and we know how that story ended.

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