Prime Minister Albanese has little understanding of regional issues

Nov 7, 2022
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

It is puzzling that the Prime Minister would choose to make this presentation to Greg Sheridan the arch conservative writer of the Murdoch stable.

The Australian on 5 November carried an extensive report by Greg Sheridan on a conversation he was granted with the Prime Minister.

This amounts to the most substantial account of the strategic perspectives of the Albanese Government.

It is puzzling that the Prime Minister would choose to make this presentation to the arch conservative writer of the Murdoch stable. It feels uncomfortable to speculate on why this channel has been taken rather than some comfortable gathering of the Labor faithful or even, indeed, the Australian Parliament. Sheridan was a great advocate of commitment to invasion of Iraq. And similarly an enthusiast for big bold US and global perspectives and conflict.

The Prime Minister has presented ideas about defence acquisitions, shifting from land war capabilities to long range weapons, with China as the target. There are a number of tragedies in this. A deep misunderstanding of international law and how the UN Charter at its very beginning declares that going to war is illegal. By what willy willy of thinking has the prime minister shifted from thinking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal but preparing for war with China is not.

It is difficult to understand how the prime minister has been suckered by the great Americans with whom he has met into thinking China is an enemy of Australia; that China has shifted to a posture of aggression towards us and Taiwan province. Does he not understand that the Taiwan Strait is narrower than Bass Strait. Has he not noted that in these ‘democracy’ events in Taipei nobody has bothered to talk to the elected parliamentary opposition in Taiwan, which favours reunification with the mainland. Did nobody brief him on the limited public support for the right wing government in Japan; that the Korean president with whom he has met very recently replaced a president whose domestic policies were close to his own,  that president Moon, was elected with passionate support for his limited single term. He has probably seen CIA and other reports on the dastardly aggressive missile and artillery firing by the DPRK.

I expect there was no explanation that the phases of that followed phases of aggressive exercises by ROK and US forces.

Prime Minister Albanese has walked out into the middle of fighting and given a press briefing which can in no way be based on understanding of regional issues.

China is not an enemy. China was deeply offended by the conduct of the US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor at a meeting in March 2021; not only by their discourtesy but also by aggressive things said. As the senior Chinese representative said in that conversation, which is on public record, he was obliged to put aside his prepared notes and respond bluntly. Thus do the Americans say the Chinese are blunt.

The single core issue that offends the United States is China’s success in peaceful development. China will no longer accept American assertion of unipolar primacy. Good advisors would explain that China is not America’s enemy.

Nor is China Australia’s enemy. China has done nothing hostile towards Australia. If we are to take offence at China’s efforts to inform itself then we should on that basis declare our restored virginity, withdraw from the Five Eyes where our entry ticket has been spying on China and Indonesia… and just smile and hold hands with New Zealand.

There is so much ill informed and naive, dangerously naive, in the Prime Minister’s revealed thoughts.

I will take up one key matter, relating to the Prime Minister’s next international foray, to the G20 Summit in Bali.

Greg Sheridan reports from his discussion with the prime minister that “[a]t the G20 summit Albanese believes there will be the chance for economic policy co-ordination among all the major economies.”

The summit is in Indonesia on 16 November. The priority issues listed on the G20 website are “global health architecture, digital transformation, and sustainable energy transition”.

The notion of “all the major economies” requires consideration. Membership of the G20 is based on status as a major economy; they are all major economies, mostly more major than Australia.

There are in fact two groups of major economies evolving in the G20.

The first group is historically economically dominant, plus acolytes, alphabetically: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, UK, US, EU.

A larger group, coalescing rapidly in the past year: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Türkiye.

Prime Minister Albanese’s entry into the world of international relations, rushing from domestic focus, was with the Quad in Tokyo, NATO in Madrid, Zelenskyy in Kyiv. What a way to start for an Australian Prime Minister!

By contrast, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni enters international relations with an visit to the EU (not quite international: financial matters, to assist with power and heating bills to March); next Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt for COP27; then Bali for the G20. While Meloni has battered her coalition partners to express adherence to the EU line on Ukraine, and has spoken to President Biden to express fealty, it will be important to observe Italy’s approach on broader issues. The third biggest EU economy, historically pushed to the edge of the Eurozone table by Germany and France, but things are changing with the energy crisis. Italy burdened by the flow of migrants via Libya (Libya disgoverned by a war for democracy), EU partners not taking their share of refugee/migrant flow. Italy is `needing new doors to knock and enter. Italy for millennia a Mediterranean power. See this global view, from a Genoese historian of banking, just the first bit, on the birth of Europe.

The larger group is built around the BRICS group: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. There are candidate members and possible members but the existing members produce more than 30% of Gross Global Product in Purchasing Power Equivalent (PPE). A list of countries by PPE is here. In that ranking China leads with $30 trillion, USA follows with $25 trillion. This is a discussion of the merits of considering “purchasing power parity”.

The candidates/possibles for membership of the BRICS group, at different rates and by different processes are: Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Türkiye.

This “BRICSalon” let me call it has shared interests in enhanced trade and especially in transactions away from the USD. There is a lot of American fury directed at Saudi Arabia, India and Türkiye because of this.

Despite the largely self-inflicted misery of our political relationship with China, China accounts for one third of Australia’s trade with the world. It is our primary obligation in our international relations to have good relations with Beijing. This we did from 1972 to 2017, when some madness was injected with propaganda from ASPI whipped up by the right of the Republican Party in the US Congress, making up tasty nasty things to poison US policy, to be grabbed at by Biden to try to be reelected. Thus do we approach commitment to an unnecessary and indecent war project led by a US president wanting to be reelected, who is even older than I am and clearly showing cognitive problems.

This is, frankly, obscene, and the suckering of an Australian prime minister into it is absurd. The plans to divert money to defence to such a project, of shonky Great Oz getting his bills paid by Little Oz is madness. We have abundant need to commit money to make this country worth defending. There are many projects within the priorities worked out in preparation for this G20 summit that need our support.

We cannot afford to sit in a corner with the US and Co and claim we are working things out with the major economic powers, without insulting the elephants in the room. We cannot imagine that Mr Albanese’s spray of strategic perspective will not cause offence in an array of countries, all the way to China.

There will be an array of double talk and walking around issues in Bali, as there may also be some new directions suggested, new doors opening. Only a fool would sit in the corner with the Americans and sulk and insult and be dismissal of Indonesia.

Indonesia was host to the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement, at Bandung in 1955. This meeting of the G20 may give rise to a similar process of non-alignment.

We played an ignorant and un-constructive role in the 1950s and 1960s in Asia, focused in SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, an inept element in the Americans’ containment of China last time. Our going against US sanctions of China from the early 1960s, selling wheat to China saved the lives of millions in China and produced long term gratitude towards us.

The bereft American foreign policy now, focused on wars and starvation of the poor via sanctions, is in many ways contrary to international law and human rights law. We must step away from the barrage of American loudspeaker mind-shaping. Albanese and Marles have run towards the shiny Easter Egg wrappers, containing a bit of chocolate and air.

We would have to go back to McMahon for comparable silliness. But the consequences were then far less.

Albanese seems to like projects running far beyond sensible prediction. When he was Rudd’s transport minister he said we would have a very fast train by the 2050s. One of his first bills before this parliament is to give half a billion as start-up for an eventual very fast train from Sydney to Newcastle. Is there some Japanese Shinkansen glitter in the eye? …but between Tokyo and Osaka in peak hours there are up to seventeen trains an hour, with seats for 1300. Compare with the population of Newcastle, 450,000. You only have to look at the timetable to see that traffic is from hinterlands to the two ends of the line, not predominantly through. You only have to look at an atlas to see half the trip is difficult geography, the other impossibly expensive real estate. Can I have my consultant fee of $500,000,000 now or did I not offer the preferred response?

Why do they let Albanese  indulge in these things?

The submarine project is comparably fantabulous, also robbing the poor of say $200 billion better spent elsewhere. One of the first lessons in the study of economics is the ‘multiplier effect’. Give a dollar to some person of whatever quality of judgement and it will flow through the economy; give hundreds of million to submarines and its multiplier effect is far less valuable to the economy.

Greg Sheridan said Albanese based his remarks on the interim report of the Defence Strategic Review, a report likely to be submitted before submissions considered. How discourteous. Can that interim report be released in some form, or have we slipped swiftly into secret government which of course includes the Pentagon.

Albanese considers that our strategic perspective was set in concrete in 1941. At that time, Australia was chest deep in the White Australia Policy and among our cherished exports was apples from Tasmania to Britain. Whatever happened to the major strategic shift in 1972-3 when the Whitlam government recognised realities in Asia, shifting recognition as the government of China from the authorities in Taipei to the authorities in Beijing. And the Whitlam Government chucked out the White Australia Policy, not just as some domestic attitude and immigration matter but in stating that we are one with Asia, we will deal equally with Asia. Has all that been chucked out? Are Asian friends being told that we are (sensibly) abandoning focus on land war, planning to have long range missiles… to target whom, to fly over whose air space to attack whom? Why has the history shaped by Labor fifty years ago been put aside.

The problem with these defence strategic reviews remains that they are not based on international strategic thinking but whackamole thinking… who’s out there to bash and how?

Dear Secret Government, can you please brief us all, all of us not just the Noddy parliamentary committee.

Read the article below:


Anthony Albanese may look and sound a mild man, and that is one of his strengths. But he has an ambition that no Australian leader has had for decades. He wants to create a military force capable of defending Australia.

To do this, he plans to change the structure of the Australian Defence Force and increase the defence budget. He is determined to do this – fully explicit in his commitment on money – even in the face of a budgetary tourniquet screwing ever tighter.

“Yes, yes! We will do what is necessary to achieve it,” he insists in an exclusive interview. “We’ve made that very clear. We’ve been really upfront, and we’ll do what is necessary. This is not optional, it’s necessary.”

He has a lot of other foreign policy ambitions as well: greater alliance intimacy with the US; a much closer mutual security relationship with Japan; developing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (he will host the Quad summit next year); deeper engagement with the South Pacific and Southeast Asia; a bigger aid budget; resisting Chinese coer­cion; and ambitious action on climate change.

It’s an enormous agenda for a prime minister and a government that once might have been expected to focus almost exclusively on domestic priorities.

Albanese was thrust into the role of international statesman in his first week as Prime Minister. The Quad summit was scheduled for two days after the federal election. Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong flew to Tokyo the Monday after Saturday’s election. They took senior Defence and national security officials with them and had hours of briefings on the plane.

I met Albanese on Wednesday, just a day or two after former foreign minister Stephen Smith and former Defence Force chief Angus Houston handed to government the interim report of their force structure review. The final report arrives in February and the government will announce its response in March. Albanese, in the most substantial and wide-ranging foreign policy interview of his prime ministership, gives plenty of indication there will be big changes.

First, will we actually see increased Australian military capabilities over the next five years as a result of this process? “Yes, that’s the whole idea of the strategic review.” Before the election, Albanese announced a Labor government would undertake a force posture review: “We changed that to a defence strategic review, not just about where to place our assets but what are the (defence) assets Australia needs to defend ourselves, but also to project (force).”

Albanese mentions specifically missiles, missile defence capabilities and drones. This is explicit and clear. He also offers a compelling rationale for changing the force structure the ADF has had in the past.

“In general we need more weaponry that can actually make a difference,” he says. “What are the assets we need so that every dollar improves our national security? Are we going to be involved in a land war, in central Queensland? If so, you need some assets for that. But is that likely? Well, no. A lot of the expenditure was based on where Australia’s recent military experience had been, in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you’re engaged in a ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan you need some assets there.

“But now the question is: how does Australia defend ourselves? Where are our missile capabilities? It means drones. It means different assets. In today’s world cyber security is very important. What are the right assets for this now? You need to be prepared to make these decisions.”

As well as the Smith-Houston review, the government has another study running to decide what kind of nuclear-propelled submarine we will acquire under the AUKUS arrangements with the US and Britain.

Albanese reveals that he and his cabinet have been intimately involved with both these processes on an ongoing basis: “The national security committee of cabinet meets almost weekly, sometimes more often. We have received reports (from the two reviews) on the way through. It’s not as if you go away and do an inquiry in isolation. We’ll get the report in the first quarter of next year and that will be very important.”

Albanese is critical of the way the Morrison government talked about the urgency of the strategic environment but made no plans for substantial new defence capabilities within the next decade. For a long time, Australia luxuriated under a strategic doctrine that there would be a 10-year warning of any strategic threat. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update formally acknowledged that the 10-year warning time no longer applied. Threats could emerge much more quickly.

Albanese says: “The (threat) time frame changed from 10 years but there was no response to that. It was as if that was an anecdote, rather than something that needed to be responded to.” So we definitely get new capabilities in the next five years? “Correct. Correct.”

Albanese’s words will reverberate throughout the strategic community. It is difficult to see how the government could continue with $30bn of heavy armour for the army, as had been envisaged in previous government plans, in light of these remarks.

I spoke to Albanese on the day the media was reporting Chinese foreign ministry criticisms of plans for Australia to upgrade the Northern Territory’s RAAF Tindal base to accommodate six US B-52 strategic bombers rotating through Australia.

Is China right to protest this shocking Australian military build-up, I ask somewhat sarcastically. Albanese replies with his fundamental view of the US alliance: “We made our decision in 1941. That was the right decision then and the US is the right partnership now.” As to the B-52s: “Australia will make our own decisions. China is entitled of course to express a view.”

But Albanese is unimpressed with Beijing’s warnings or its behaviour in the region: “China clearly has changed its posture in the region and that’s something that, as a middle power in the region, we need to take account of. The strategic competi­tion in the region informs our view of our relationships with nations in the region, and the way the region conducts itself.”

You can see this in the growing strategic intimacy Albanese has pursued with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida. In five months as Prime Minister, Albanese has met Kishida four times. Albanese reveals that at all four meetings, and in various telephone conversations, the two leaders spoke about the historic joint security declaration they later signed in Perth last month. “This was driven from the top, by the prime ministers in both countries,” he says.

It must surely be the most intense five-month personal leader-to-leader engagement in the history of the Japan-Australia relationship. The two will get together again for one or more bilateral meetings in the forthcoming trio of summits both will attend this month: the G20 in Indonesia, the following East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Southeast Asia.

The security declaration with Japan intentionally used language very similar to that contained in the ANZUS Treaty Australia has with the US. Albanese is not surprised it was noticed: “I saw it as a significant upgrade of a (security) relationship that has been implicit to one that is explicit. It was the cementing of a friendship, a public declaration of that.”

Albanese and Kishida share the view that it’s impossible to imagine Beijing joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement: “Our position is that in order to support accession to the TPP, countries would need to demonstrate their support for existing agreements. At the moment, China’s actions in placing sanctions against Australian products means that China is counting itself out.”

This does not mean that if Beijing lifted its sanctions against Australia Canberra would automatically support it joining the TPP: “There are a range of issues, but China is excluding itself. That (lifting sanctions) is a precondition.” But as Albanese says, even if and when Beijing lifts sanctions “there are a range of issues”.

The PM would like the US to reconsider joining the TPP: “Largely there the impediment to the US joining is domestic politics. I’d be hopeful they would consider a change in their position. Part of US engagement in the region is economic engagement and TPP membership would facilitate that.”

At the G20 summit Albanese believes there will be the chance for economic policy co-ordination among all the major economies. One controversy is over whether Russia’s Vladimir Putin will attend. Albanese declared very early that, regardless of Putin’s attendance, he was going to the G20: “This was an important signal early of the relationship we have with Indonesia and the respect we hold for them.

“The G20 meeting is particularly important for Indonesia. At a time of uncertainty and global unrest, with a land war in Europe, strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific and economic turbulence, this is a particularly important conference.”

The meeting will be an opportunity for leaders to sell the economic message of the times: “The fact of the gathering will be a reminder that you’re actually getting pretty uniform action from the central banks across the board, with uniform tightening of monetary policy the like of which we haven’t seen for decades.

“All the central banks are targeting inflation as the priority. I think what we saw in the UK (under Liz Truss) was the markets responding to measures that were seen as not consistent with the actions of the central bank.

“That was the context of our budget, too. We wanted to make sure that fiscal policy was working with monetary policy, that they were not contradicting each other.”

Asked whether Russia should be in the G20 at all, and whether Putin should be allowed to attend, Albanese responds: “Sometimes exclusion can make it easier for the excluded to hide behind that and not have to justify its actions. I think if Russia attends the G20 that is the opportunity the world will have to make very, very clear what they think about Russia’s actions.”

Albanese and his government could not have been stronger in solidarity with Ukraine and opposition to Russia’s invasion. Albanese visited Ukraine and his government has twice extended military aid packages to Kyiv.

Does he think there is a real danger of Moscow using some kind of tactical nuclear weapon, to the possibility of which Putin has alluded more than once: “I take Putin’s threats very seriously. It has reminded the world that the existence of nuclear weapons is a threat to global security and the norms we had come to take for granted.

“Putin threatening to use nuclear forces on Ukrainian forces or Ukrainian people – the consequences of that would be an absolute game changer in a very bad way.

“Post the Cold War there was a de-escalation. This is a significant escalation by someone who clearly miscalculated. There are a range of remarkable things that have happened.

“One is the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, under the leadership of President Zelensky – they have fought for their national sovereignty. Another is the strength of the world’s efforts to support Ukraine. Australia has been part of this in a bipartisan way. And the third is that NATO is now stronger than it was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin was confident he’d roll over Ukraine very quickly. That certainly hasn’t happened. Now the call-up of 300,000 troops is causing, must be causing, some instability inside Russia.”

Next year Albanese will host the Quad summit. Labor had a troubled history with the Quad. Under Kevin Rudd, it did not support the Quad. Former prime minister Paul Keating is a trenchant opponent of the grouping, which brings together the US, India, Japan and Australia.

Albanese is unapologetic that the Quad serves the strategic interests of Australia and of the region: “I think the Quad is of central importance, if you look at it geographically, strategically, historically.

“India will be the third largest economy in the world (it is currently fifth). It is very important strategically and in its role in technological advancement, in IT. We have a lot in common with India.” Albanese will travel to India early next year.

“And Japan has been such an important economic partner. Australia’s role in fuelling the post-war growth in Japan has been critical. And the US remains our most important ally. The Quad brings together these four countries in a trusting relationship. I regard it as an incredible honour for me as PM, and for Australia, to be hosting the Quad summit. The Quad is important now but it will grow in importance.”

Albanese is proud of his relationship with Joe Biden. Two centre-left political leaders at different stages in their lives but with not wildly dissimilar political pedigrees. His government shares with the Biden administration a view of the central importance of action to combat climate change: “The price of admission, the price of credibility, in the international system is having effective action on climate change.”

Yet this US attitude could be significantly set back, if not reversed, at next week’s midterm US congressional elections.

Could Albanese work with a re-elected Donald Trump, something that is not beyond the realms of possibility in 2024: “I think the relationship between Australia and the US is much more important than individuals. It’s a relationship between nations.”

That must count as a qualified yes, and of course any Australian prime minister would be willing to work with any American president. Albanese sees all the dimensions of foreign, security and most domestic policy as intimately linked. He favours action, for example, to bolster Australia’s fuel reserves and re-create a merchant navy: “We remain vulnerable at the end of global supply chains. The idea that our fuel reserves are held in the Gulf of Mexico and that we don’t have the capacity to take goods around our own coast, as an island continent, is a national security issue. The rest of the world regards having a merchant navy as essential. It is absolutely essential that Australia have a merchant fleet.”

In a national emergency the government can commandeer Australian-flagged vessels for essential work. But there are only a tiny handful of Australian-flagged commercial vessels.

Albanese’s government has been exceptionally busy in national security and foreign policy. His Foreign Minister, Wong, has been a blur of motion around the South Pacific and is now travelling extensively in Southeast Asia. Defence Minister Richard Marles is focused on the big force structure decisions. Albanese has driven our interests in intense head of government diplomacy.

He has used soft power where possible, not only increasing aid budgets but also welcoming South Pacific leaders to Australia, giving some of them a lift to Shinzo Abe’s funeral and the like.

He has a thousand challenges ahead at every angle. His first moment of truth comes next March when we will see what defence capabilities he can produce and in what time frame. Australia’s security environment is even more threatening than its economic outlook. Albanese has established a clear, effective direction, mostly embodying basic strategic continuity, with new energy and focus.

Australia will need him to have all that and more, and even a touch of luck. For he has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps.

Greg Sheridan. Published in The Australian on 5 November.

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