Within days of winning the election, Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong flew to Japan to attend a Quad meeting. Conversations with Joe Biden, Fumio Kishida, and Narendra Modi would have revealed that the United States, Japan, and India held very similar views on China and other regional issues as did the previous Morrison and Turnbull governments.
Rather than an outlier, the previous Coalition governments were aligned with and leading the approaches taken by our closest strategic partners in the region. That remains the case, even with Penny Wong in Beijing and all the hype about Labor resetting the relationship with Xi’s China.
To give due credit, Albanese in opposition supported virtually every policy decision taken by the Coalition government when it really mattered such as countering foreign interference, the QUAD, the AUKUS agreement including Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, and supporting an increased American presence in Australia.
This speaks to a bipartisan understanding that the challenge and threat of China is real and imminent, there is no possibility of balance without the US, deterring China from contemplating the use of force and other coercion is the important and urgent task, and Japan is fast becoming our de facto ally.
This provides context for the remarkable and almost seamless continuity in strategic approach from the Coalition to the Labor Party—an observation also made to me by officials at the highest levels in Washington.
The Labor government is not only agreeing with Coalition-era policies but promising to pursue the necessary elements to balance and deter China better and faster than their predecessors.
For example, Defence Minister Richard Marles criticised the previous government for being too slow to develop and acquire the capabilities identified in the Morrison-era 2020 Strategic Defence Update.
Communiques after last weeks’ Washington and Tokyo meetings highlighted additional plans for an increased American presence, activating AUKUS to eliminate any submarine gap between the phasing out of conventional submarines to acquiring nuclear propelled vessels, hasten the Australian development of longer-range strike and other weapons needed to deter, and accelerated Japanese involvement in developing and positioning required military assets.
The Defence Strategic Review commissioned by Albanese will be released in February and the government will respond to it one month later. Whether Australia can do things better and faster under the Labor government than would have occurred under the Coalition is unknowable. The point is that both sides are moving in the same direction.
Yet moving in the same direction doesn’t mean tactics or temperament are identical. AUKUS is an enormously significant agreement designed to counter a deteriorating strategic environment and military balance heading in China’s favour.
It is also an inherently disruptive agreement that enraged the Chinese and French. A moot but illuminating question is whether an Albanese government prioritising a calm and measured approach to foreign policy matters would have conceived of and pursued the AUKUS agreement which is an inherently disruptive initiative.
The arrival of a new Australian government has China opportunistically offering a diplomatic reset beginning with Xi Jinping agreeing to the meeting with Albanese in Bali last month. The Labor government knows coercive economic measures against us have not been lifted, and even if they eventually are, Chinese intentions to eventually achieve Australian and regional submission have not changed.
What does the widely termed diplomatic reset with China mean under a Labor government?
After meeting Xi, Albanese went too far when he stated the CPTPP is an agreement between formally recognised nation-states, thereby disqualifying Taiwan from membership.
It is unclear whether that statement was related to attempts to consolidate the diplomatic reset with China, but thankfully this position has been since walked back. It is up to Canberra, not Beijing, to define the contours of Australia’s One China Policy that formally recognises the mainland as the one and only Chinese nation-state but leaves much room for legitimate manoeuvre.
What about the Chinese economic coercion that began under the Coalition’s watch? That it is occurring is less the product of Morrison’s mismanagement and more the result of the Coalition doing what was necessary to defend Australia’s interests and sovereignty. To conclude otherwise would be to normalise and internalise Beijing’s actions when the latter are illegitimate responses of a vengeful and arrogant power.
China is relentlessly shrinking the diplomatic space and international institutions within which Taiwan can play an appropriately active and constructive role.
The less relevant Taiwan becomes, the lower the cost and risk for Beijing to coerce Taiwan and even contemplate seizing it by force. Will Labor do better than the Coalition to support an enhanced institutional and economic role for Taiwan within Australia’s One China framework?
And what of Labor’s emphasis on improving the resilience of Southeast Asian nations and strengthening Australian influence in the Pacific at China’s expense? The Coalition wanted to do the same, but Wong’s early energy and presence from her shuttle diplomacy has been impressive.
Nevertheless, Wong faces the problem that some of these nations have already internalised and prematurely factored in Chinese pre-eminence while others are ruled by governments more willing to receive Chinese largesse for regime preservation or seeking immediate but short-term gains rather than better outcomes for the population. Simply allocating more resources to address climate change and development assistance is not enough to do the trick.
Despite some failures on their watch, there is broad domestic support and among key allies and partners for the broad strategic approach cobbled together by the previous two Coalition governments.
The Australian people have decided it is Labor’s turn to lead. On foreign policy, better and faster execution of an agreed approach is how the Albanese government ought to, and will be, assessed.