It’s back to diplomacy as destiny

May 31, 2022
Prime Minister Albanese and Foreign Minister Wong depart for the QUAD meeting in Tokyo
The Labor government’s new national security team now has an opportunity to bring a greater degree of conceptual thinking to handling China. Image: AAP /Lukas Coch

While some commentators hoped that the new Albanese government might immediately reset ties with Beijing, such expectations were both undefined and unrealistic.

The ‘China threat’ narrative still pulses strongly through the security and intelligence apparatus so dominant on Australia’s global outlook The result is a ‘debate’ over Australian foreign policy which may, for some time yet, struggle to transcend this stifling inflexibility.

Into this climate comes a new prime minister leading a party which traditionally affirms that the only way Australia can have a say in the decisions which control its destiny is through diplomacy. At the Quad leaders meeting, Mr Albanese stressed continuity in commitment to the grouping and underlined his determination on climate policy action.

Likewise the government’s first substantive foreign policy address, delivered by Foreign Minister Penny Wong in Fiji, showed a return to first principles in Australian statecraft. Where her predecessors warmed themselves over the flickering embers of the Anglosphere, Ms Wong affirmed that Canberra would consistently proclaim to its neighbours and others ‘Australia’s full identity’. She explained that the 270 ancestries represented in the Australian population gives Canberra ‘the capacity to reach into every corner of the world’. It is a ‘vast untapped power in modern Australia’. There would be developed a ‘First Nations approach to foreign policy’. Wong added that Australia will do more but ‘do it differently’.

It has been some time since an Australian government made the connection between its ancient indigenous past, its multicultural reality and its foreign policy posture.

Ms Wong’s visit, against the backdrop of a concerted Chinese attempt to secure a ten-nation regional security agreement, underlined Labor’s election promise to move swiftly onto the front foot in the Pacific. But note the difference – Ms Wong stressed the risks of China’s ambition without pounding the drums of war, and absent were the gung-ho backbenchers painting lurid images of a red tide lapping at Pacific shores. Rather the foreign minister outlined practical steps to define a new era of Pacific engagement and delivered the key message with clarity – ‘nothing will change our geography, our proximity’, Ms Wong affirmed, or the fact that ‘our future is intertwined’ with the South Pacific.

While previous Coalition governments had anticipated some of the problems Australia now faces with China’s push into the Pacific, their policy response was ponderous. Under Scott Morrison, foreign policy planning was at a discount. Morrison may have seen his foreign policy in terms of a grand ‘mission’, but it failed domestically and in the region, as the Beijing-Honiara security agreement so vividly shows. The Labor government’s new national security team now has an opportunity to bring a greater degree of conceptual thinking to handling China’s new assertiveness. The first step has been taken already, in the form of the Prime Minister’s pledge to not politicise national security.

That alone will contrast sharply with Morrison, who allowed the debate over managing China to spill over into domestic politics and thereby tear at the fabric of national unity. Some around him, wrongly it proved, believed playing a ‘China card’ in the election would be an advantage. That conviction, born of the view that the Coalition could wantonly ransack the ACME catalogue of Cold War imagery for its own political benefit, now confronts key lost electorates that contained large Chinese-Australian communities.

The starting point for thinking about the numerous and diverse challenges that China poses is surely the homefront: to articulate the critical importance of domestic social cohesion, stress the enduring and rich contribution of Chinese Australians to national life and give short shrift to those who, by dint of their national security views, claim the high ground of Australian patriotism for themselves alone. Mr Morrison barely reined in those whose style damaged the national cause overseas. Indeed, by the end he had joined them in the shouting.

A more conceptual approach would convene the various stakeholders in the Australia-China relationship – state governments, mining and energy companies, universities, diaspora groups, small and large businesses, including the tourism industry, and the Canberra bureaucracy, to at least share the range of views on the relationship and its direction. Now is the time to try to see around corners.

This is not to conjure the return of the old engagement model. Rather it is to consider how to manage the relationship into the future at the same time as protecting Australian interests. Given that the Chinese tariffs and non-tariff barriers still block key exports, and with two Australian citizens still detained in China on murky charges, the government has to proceed with caution.

And while recognising the primary importance of the alliance with the United States, Canberra should not hesitate where necessary to advise, caution and even disagree with Washington when its judgment deems that appropriate. The claim that this amounts to ‘distancing’ from America, or that it is contrary to a deepening alliance, is a fiction: it is, rather, the kind of ally Washington needs. Blokey sentimentalism brings few tangible benefits.

History shows Labor has nothing left to prove in terms of its ANZUS credentials. So to be sensibly cool and critical, if required, will only strengthen the relationship. Such a stance is one that has consistently brought greater respect from senior American counterparts. The acquisition of a nuclear-powered submarine capability via AUKUS has a long road to realisation. And Australia, after all, has a right to a say in the commitments it assumes.

Original article published in the Australian Financial Review.

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