We are locked and loaded with our US partners against China

Nov 10, 2022
Penny Wong sits next to Fumio_Kishida_at_the_10th_high-level_CTBT_Summit Image: Wikimedia Commons

It would require a microscope to discern any difference between this government’s foreign policy priorities and those of the last. The verbiage is cheap and empty. It’s not aligned with actions. Labor has done nothing to change the direction and momentum established by the previous government.

A couple of months after the election, Penny Wong gave a speech to her department describing her vision for Foreign Affairs. She urged her diplomats to be ambitious for the country, act creatively and, importantly, bring foreign affairs “back to the centre of … government”. Her vision was that Australia would be much “more than just (a) supporting player in the grand drama of global geopolitics”.

I put this to a foreign ambassador who nodded tolerantly in response, a slight smile playing around the corner of their mouth.


In business they say, “don’t worry about what someone says; watch where they’re investing”. It’s the same with international relations. The real imperatives that drive policy priorities are revealed by the itineraries of leaders. Use this rubric to divine Anthony Albanese’s agenda and very different priorities spring into focus from those publicly endorsed by Wong.

It’s not a split – it’s simply that it would require a microscope to discern any difference between this government’s foreign policy priorities and those of the last. The verbiage is cheap and empty. It’s not aligned with actions.

Take climate change; the most serious issue facing the world. Even Scott Morrison attended last year’s COP 26 in Glasgow. Albanese derided the (then) PM’s speech as weak and insubstantial, but he won’t even bother attending this year’s meeting. Instead he’s prioritising strategy, meeting four times with Japan’s PM Fumio Kishida, attending a Quad meeting, and repeatedly emphasising the critical role of our alliance with Washington. Australia’s ‘line’ at the forthcoming ASEAN meeting in Cambodia will be indistinguishable from that of the US. Despite a slim leavening of forthcoming economic forums (the G20 in Bali, and APEC in Thailand) Albanese’s major international project has been to continue locking the country into a series of alliances against China.

This isn’t necessarily bad. The point is, however, to recognise that instead of reshaping the world, this government has continued barrelling along the tracks planted by the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison administrations. In another interview on the weekend, the PM made clear once again his determination to spend up big on defence. The arms manufacturers will be pleased.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 changed the world, but the lingering effect of George Bush’s 2003 subsequent decision to invade Iraq hasn’t been fully appreciated. America, the UK, and Australia have now lost the ability to pose where Wong would place us, listening independently, engaging impartially, and respecting sovereignty. That’s neither good nor bad; it simply is.

When Wong refers to our commitment to universal values, international law and human rights, she’s endorsing principles she believes in. Unfortunately many other countries hear nothing more than hypocrisy. They claim we pick and choose principles as we go.

Take Taiwan.

In the 1970s, both the US and Australia agreed there was only one China and shifted recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Today that’s all changed and President Joe Biden has indicated he’d order US troops to fight to defend the island. This would almost certainly plunge Australia into war with China, for two reasons.

The first is the ‘Anglo-sphere’. Beginning with the deployments in the middle-east, Australia has seen an increasing number of generals attached to and given senior US command positions. Prominent examples are Senator (and General) Jim Molan (former Chief of Operations in Iraq) and current Army commander Rick Burr (formerly Deputy Commander, US Army Pacific), but many, many others are embedded with our ally.

The depth of this military integration makes any pretension that we could somehow maintain a policy separate from Washington’s quite farcical. The collaboration is so very intimate and close it is naive to pretend that Australia would not be involved at the beginning of any conflict. Canberra would not have the time to stand aside and calmly decide where our national interests lie.

Additionally, American officers and officials are increasingly filling senior positions in this country. They’re doing good jobs, but by definition their loyalty is divided. Nobody can, or should, be expected to serve two masters, as becomes obvious when a new capability like the nuclear submarine is being introduced. Any US Navy expert would naturally consider the advantages of using SSNs (nuclear attack submarines) to destroy Chinese nuclear ballistic boats. That’s not Australia’s requirement, which is rather for small robotic underwater vessels that can defend this country in the shallow waters off our northern coast. Our requirements are being skewed to fit in with US needs.

The second factor is China’s changing capability and determination. As the accuracy and range of missiles has altered the military equation across the Taiwan strait has also changed. The risk is conflict would quickly spiral to catastrophic levels. Wargames never ‘prove’ which side will win, they demonstrate that losses, on both sides, would be massive. If at some point Beijing decides it will act to change the current situation and initiate conflict, the cost will be huge. It’s dangerous to prepare for a conflict that doesn’t have a way for either side to back down.

The point of basing US B-52s here is that Tindal airbase is (currently) beyond Chinese tactical missile range. This won’t remain the case for long and it’s almost inevitable that, in the case of conflict over the strait, American forces based in the Northern Territory would be committed to the fight. This would make such facilities perfectly legitimate targets.

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, Albanese was a factional warrior on the left of the party. During this period he developed a deep understanding of the way power worked. He knows that unless leaders grip the tiller and set their own course, institutions will simply continue down the path already fixed for them. Labor has done nothing to change the direction and momentum established by the previous government.

That’s why Penny Wong’s flowery verbiage emphasising a ‘third way’ sounds so hollow. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise: we’re locked and loaded with our US partners.


Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.

First published in The Canberra Times Nov 7 2022

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