Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s address to the National Press Club in Canberra this week showcased her careful use of language.
In a 5000-word speech on Australia’s interests in a regional balance of power, the word alliance is used only once. ANZUS, our military partnership with the US, is not named. AUKUS has six mentions, described as an “evolution of our relationships with the US and the UK” and helping to make Australia a “stronger partner for our region”.
What gets top billing in the speech is strategic or great power competition threatening the agency of countries in the Indo-Pacific.
The purpose of foreign policy, Wong argues, is to ensure “all countries of the region must exercise their agency through diplomatic, economic and other engagement to … uphold the norms and rules that have underpinned decades of peace and prosperity”. She says a critical part of her job is to “lower the heat on any potential conflict” to be “steadfast in refusing to engage in speculation about regional flashpoints, whether the Himalayas, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula or anywhere else”. So, don’t mention the war, or the risk of one. Don’t mention the alliance relationship that effectively ties Australia into one side of the region’s great power competition. Instead, maintain the status quo.
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On Taiwan, for example: “We call for the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues through dialogue without the threat or use of force or coercion.” How does Australia do this? By following the “work of Australia’s greatest foreign minister, Dr Herbert Evatt” with diplomacy – backed, it must be said, with deterrence-strengthening military power.
Put to one side the political tribalism which, for Wong, makes John Curtin, Evatt and Gough Whitlam Australia’s “greatest statespeople” and Robert Menzies and John Howard mere journeymen who sought simply “to attach ourselves to a great power”. These rhetorical flourishes rally the party troops at low cost even if the judgments are inaccurate. In pursuing her work, Wong is methodical, serious, careful and often quite effective. Her efforts in the Pacific have been excellent. She understands that “being there” in the region, turning up to the multilateral meetings and engaging with local concerns, is a bedrock Australian foreign policy requirement.
Moreover, some of Wong’s critique of previous Coalition governments is accurate. Despite Scott Morrison’s Pacific step-up policy, Australia was surprised with the speed of Beijing’s money power. It was a mistake to reduce development funding, and more investment should have been put into expanding our small diplomatic presence around the world.
Former prime minister Paul Keating could not be more wrong in his critique of Wong’s regional diplomacy efforts. His charge that “Running around the Pacific Islands with a lei around your neck handing out money, which is what Penny does, is not foreign policy” is frankly absurd.
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Wong’s cool but polite dismissal of Keating’s ill-informed rudeness, that “in tone and substance he diminished both his legacy and the subject matter”, was the perfect rejoinder.
That said, Wong’s speech fails to set out a strong enough foreign policy position at a time of major strategic risk for Australia.
I have four concerns with the Foreign Minister’s description of our strategic environment and her policy responses. First, Wong argues strategic competition is the source of risk to Australia, but in listing the qualities that she wants for the Indo-Pacific – a region that is “open, stable and prosperous” and “operating by agreed rules, standards and laws” – it is obvious that the challenges to stability all come from China.
Unless the region gives in to Beijing’s desire for regional domination, strategic competition is the necessary outcome of countries such as the US, Japan and Australia pushing back against China’s attack on the status quo.
Australia is not a neutral observer here. We have a dog in the fight and indeed need the region to join more actively in resisting Beijing. We need more strategic competition, not less, and we shouldn’t use the phrase as a way of sounding neutral about the threat.
Second, there never has been a period in Indo-Pacific history when the region was left alone to pursue its agency. Wong says: “Our view and the view of the Pacific Islands Forum is that the Pacific family is responsible for Pacific security.” The only time when that statement came close to being true was in the early years of post-war independence of the Pacific Island states, when the US dominated the region.
In World War I, World War II and much of the Cold War, the region was under hot strategic competition. We are back in that situation now. The Pacific Islands do not have the choice to opt out geo-strategic competition.
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A third concern is that calling for the status quo does not overcome the reality that China and Russia are hellbent on breaking the international system. A foreign policy built on preserving a system so openly and comprehensively under attack is quickly going to disappoint.
Point four: “China is going to keep being China,” Wong says, meaning China will use “every tool at its disposal to maximise its own resilience and influence”. Absolutely right. Given that, how is it sensible to keep building economic and other ties with a regime intent on smashing the status quo? Government needs to be clearer with business and premiers about the strategic stupidity of deeper engagement with China.
If the core objective of Wong’s foreign policy is to sustain an “open and inclusive region, based on agreed rules” it could not be clearer that this aim runs into conflict with China. Stabilising ties with Beijing is a stalling tactic delaying an inevitable reassessment of our relationship with China.
It’s not surprising that diplomats, when pressed, offer more diplomacy, but the need is for a tough strategic rethink. We have a long way to go to come to grips with these realities. This is not a time to just keep calm and carry on, hoping that the status quo will somehow survive.