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A refresh in Australian foreign policy, awaiting new directions

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Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in the NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain (Photo: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto via Reuters).

In Brief

You could forgive Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for wondering whether the election he won in May 2022 was a good one to lose. Resurgent inflation and slowing growth, a winter wave of COVID-19, and a post-pandemic budget crunch are giving his new Labor Party government a tough start.


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Luckily, it’s a truism of Australian politics that prime ministers can breathe a sigh of relief when their VIP jet lifts off from Australian soil. Notwithstanding the tumult of world affairs, foreign policy is one area where an Australian government can enjoy a near-endless political honeymoon if it so chooses.

Australia’s parliament is a bit player in foreign policy, lacking the expansive role the United States Congress has in trade and foreign affairs. Big business and the farm lobby (not to mention the average voter) are overall well-disposed to free trade and liberal investment — unlike many countries where vested interests seek to block them. With a strong (and some would say damaging) tradition of bipartisanship on foreign policy, oppositions typically limit their attacks to its management more than its conceptual underpinnings.

These background realities have given a tailwind to the refreshed, though not revolutionary, approach to international affairs that Allan Gyngell assesses in our lead article this week.

Amid a post-election diplomatic blitz, new initiatives in the Pacific and on China have gained the most attention. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s three separate trips to the Pacific were capped by Prime Minister Albanese’s well-reviewed appearance at the Pacific Islands Forum. Without a doubt, as Gyngell says, the new government’s pursuit of ‘a more ambitious carbon reduction commitment was a prerequisite to consolidating Australia’s position within the region’, as well as a shift away from rhetoric that belittled Pacific states as pawns in geopolitical competition with China.

Rehabilitating the relationship with China will be a slower process, even as ‘careful steps have been taken to “stabilise” the relationship’. So far, neither Canberra nor Beijing ‘has backed away from fundamental positions’. Albanese’s ministers are perhaps too keenly aware of the government’s vulnerability to accusations from hawks in the opposition and the media that it has ‘sold out’ Australia’s sovereignty for economic gain if it too quickly makes concessions to get Beijing to lift de facto trade sanctions.

But trade-offs between sovereignty and economic gain are inherent in the process of international economic integration, from bilateral FTAs to Australia’s membership of WTO, or the CPTPP, or the other institutions that together constitute the exalted ‘rules-based order’. What makes this trade-off less palatable in the case of China is that demands for policy change have gone beyond economics to touch on some non-negotiables around the integrity of Australia’s democratic processes and national security.

Still there is room for flexibility on the negotiables, as Australia’s new trade minister Don Farrell highlighted when raising the possibility of dropping WTO cases against China. As Gyngell emphasises, ‘too much has changed for relations to return to the ease of the early 2000s, but it is no longer impossible to imagine productive exchanges on matters of mutual benefit’.

Whether a reset of relations is achieved, a reset of the national mindset on China at least makes space for properly apprehending the opportunities for Australia in Southeast Asia. Too many in Australia look to Southeast Asia — and indeed the Pacific — and see only China. Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s paean to the importance of Southeast Asian states and Southeast Asian regionalism to Australia’s security and prosperity, expressed in her recent speech in Singapore, is welcome.

Malaysian-born Wong has attempted to position her own personal story as symbolic of the linkages between Australia and the region, stopping for congee in her birthplace of Kota Kinabalu, or delivering remarks on social media in Bahasa Indonesia. ‘The tone is new’, and in Gyngell’s judgement, ‘tone matters’. It has ‘the practical effect of signalling to the region Australia’s desire to work as an embedded partner with Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Japan and India through the complexities ahead’.

So a signal is coming loud and clear. But is there a train on the way?

Many unanswered questions remain about Australia’s foreign and defence policy future in the coming decades, as power shifts in Asia introduce dissonances between the three things that, in Gyngell’s account, lie at the the ‘bipartisan core’ of Australia’s post-WWII foreign policy: ‘commitment to the United States alliance, engagement with the region and support for a rules-based international order’.

Australia’s close ties to the United States aren’t intrinsically a barrier to closer ties with Southeast Asia. Japan, an enormously influential player in the region, is a US treaty ally, as indeed are two members of ASEAN. But Australia has certainly paid a price in credibility in recent years in Asia by being seen to have gone out of its way to antagonise Beijing, in a way that far exceeds even the more pro-American states in its region. Southeast Asians may well ask: why should we listen to Australian counsel about how to manage China, when Canberra can’t get the Chinese to return its phone calls?

Australia need not assimilate entirely what may appear to some Australians as Southeast Asia’s complacency about the hazards posed by China’s rise in order to learn from Southeast Asian states about how to squeeze maximum economic benefit from the China relationship while hedging against the risks. But Australia might sensibly converge rhetorically with Southeast Asian leaders, who have been reminding the Americans that the last thing that their countries need is to be forced into blocs in a new Cold War. The job for Australia, as a trusted and respected democratic ally, is not merely to encourage US engagement in the region but to shape its form in a way that doesn’t create the need for Asian states to sort themselves into such blocs.

Charting such a course is made more difficult by things like the AUKUS agreement — effectively a strategic commitment to join the United States in frustrating Chinese attempts to establish strategic primacy in East Asia. A nice enough goal if you can achieve it without a fight but, as Hugh White argues, potentially a very dangerous one for Australia when China’s challenge to US primacy proves overwhelming, AUKUS notwithstanding. Be that as it may, AUKUS involves expenditures and timeframes so immense that there’s every chance that nuclear submarines for Australia turn out to be somewhat like Australia’s elusive plans for high-speed rail: a nice piece of kit, but so expensive and complicated that it keeps being kicked down the road.

If only Australian policymakers could think in decades about investments that can be made in Australia’s Asian future closer to home: rebuilding Asian language skills and education on Asian politics and societies, so the current and future leaders in the public and private sectors understand how Asia’s future and Australia’s place in it are seen through Asian eyes and are invested in the capabilities to deal with that. To be sure, this is a whole-of-society cultural and intellectual reorientation that requires investment of money and leadership spanning governments, even generations. But it’s an investment Australia can’t afford not to make.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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