Foreign policy under Labor: beholden, bereft and befuddled

Feb 14, 2023
World map with a magnifying glass pointing at Australia.

Labor came to office last May, replacing a government that had steered Australia’s relationship with the United States to new heights of servility. Our ties with China were in tatters. Many had hoped that the change of government would usher in a shift to a more imaginative and less subservient foreign policy. Nine months later such hopes are little more than idle fantasy.

On assuming office, Prime Minister Albanese embarked on a frenetic travelling schedule, with one purpose, it seems: to laud the virtues of the alliance with the United States and endlessly highlight the dangers posed by China’s and Russia’s ‘confrontational policies’.

Within hours of being sworn in, Albanese travelled to Tokyo for a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). A few weeks later, he attended the NATO leaders’ summit in Madrid, then the meetings of the Pacific Islands Forum, the ASEAN Leaders Summit and the G20 summit.

Much the same can be said of Penny Wong’s incessant travelling. Though her efforts were closely focussed on Asia and the Pacific Islands, any deviation from the tone set by the prime minster and even the more hawkish Defence minister, Richard Marles, was barely visible.

In the space of nine months, prime minister, foreign minister and defence minister have attended dozens of bilateral and multilateral meetings. Different settings, different agendas, different players, but always the same mantra.

The message is deceptively innocent. Russia and China pose major challenges to the rules based international order, and to the security, interests and values of the democratic West. What is left unsaid is that these are rules set largely by the United States, which others must dutifully obey.

The constancy of this message is perhaps best encapsulated in the joint statement agreed to at the Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) held in Washington last December. The US-Australia Alliance and partnership, we read, “have never been stronger”.

The statement singles out China’s egregious misdeeds: destabilising actions in the South China Sea, excessive maritime claims, dangerous encounters at sea and in the air, severe violations of human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, and systematic curtailment of democratic institutions in Hong Kong.

In sharp contrast, Taiwan is described as “a leading democracy in the Indo-Pacific region, an important regional economy, and a key contributor to critical supply chains.” Not exactly the ideal way to stimulate a constructive dialogue with China.

The two parties go on to express opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, but in the same breath announce their intention to enhance Taiwan’s international standing and engagement. While paying lip service to the ‘One China’ principle, Washington and Canberra are busily fostering two Chinas.

They argue that strategic competition (some would say ‘strategic confrontation’) should not escalate into armed conflict, but say little about how to avoid the slippery slope to ruin.

They are much more forthright when it comes to how strategic competition will be pursued. In the Pacific region, the US Coast Guard is to enhance maritime surveillance. The PNG, Fiji and Tonga armed forces are to be included in joint military exercises, including Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023. Regional exercises are valued because they enable the integration of the South Pacific into US regional planning.

The joint statement goes on to list the elements that underpin the US-Australia defence and security relationship. The Enhanced Force Posture Cooperation agreement (2021) will now involve more than the 2,500 US Marines who visit the Northern Territory each year from March to October.

The new arrangements will allow US bomber task force rotations to be followed by US Navy and Army rotations. They will have access to Australian land, sea and air space, and extensive infrastructure including “runway improvements, parking aprons, fuel infrastructure, explosive ordnance storage infrastructure and facilities to support the workforce.” Des Ball’s famous description of Australia as a suitable piece of real estate has never been more apt.

Nor does military cooperation end there. US Army and US Marine Corps forces are to be given expanded locations to enable exercises and enhanced regional engagement; trilateral US-Australia-Japan defence cooperation is to be increased; and Japan will be invited to participate in military activities in Australia.

And then a new milestone. The three AUKUS partners (Australia, UK, US) will soon announce the arrangements that will provide Australia with a nuclear-powered submarine capability. The likelihood is that any public announcement will be short on detail, delivery decades away, the financial cost well in in excess of $100 billion, and the diplomatic cost prohibitive.

To top it all off, the military alliance is being stretched to include unrelenting hostility to Russia and euphoric support for Ukraine. To date, Australia has provided Ukraine with about $655 million in support, 70 per cent of which is military aid.

What do these and related alliance entanglements add up to? In brief, a perilous future.

Australia’s foreign and security policies are now almost entirely governed by US strategic priorities and planning. Never before have we been as closely tied to the great and powerful friend’s apron strings. Australian sovereignty has been effectively ceded to the United States.

Ironically, this has been done without the slightest consultation with our First Nations. Yet, they have never ceded the right to the land, the sea and the air to the invading European settlers, much less to any third parties that wish to integrate the continent into their war plans.

It is now difficult to imagine any major conflict or flashpoint on which Australia’s position would significantly deviate from US directives or even implicit preferences.

In practice, if not in theory, Australia will be at war the moment the United States is at war. Should the United States engage in hostilities with its two principal adversaries, China and Russia, directly or via proxies, Australian resources and lives will almost certainly be placed at America’s disposal.

Some will say this is not new. Australia has often fought at America’s side – from World War II to Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Each war involved horrendous loss of life. The difference is that today we are in the midst of a much greater crisis.

A new iron curtain is descending across Europe, Asia and beyond. Over the past 12 months the war in Ukraine has unmasked the catastrophic implications of great power confrontation in the nuclear age. The ongoing tensions around the Taiwan Strait point in the same direction.

Labor’s response to these trends has been deafening silence. No questioning of US nuclear doctrines and deployments. No ideas for a comprehensive dialogue with China, especially in relation to Taiwan and the South China Sea. No constructive proposals for the cessation of hostilities in Ukraine. No concrete plans to sign up to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. No collaboration with Southeast Asian and Pacific Island neighbours to promote universal membership of the treaty, let alone reform of the UN system.

And no suggestion that the government wishes to make common cause with other principled governments and civil society voices trying to shift the international discourse from strategic competition to cooperative coexistence.

No sign thus far that this Labor government has the wisdom, mettle and know-how needed to steer the ship into safer waters. But then again, as the poet reminds us, “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”


For more on this topic, P&I recommends the ‘Ukraine: Rethinking Global Security‘ webinar featuring Joseph Camilleri, Richard Falk, Kishore Mahbubani, Kate Hudson, Wei Yu, Chandra Muzaffar and Paulina Chan on the 23 February, 2023.  Register here.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!