The election of a new government presents Australia with a much-needed opportunity to reappraise its place in the world. In less than 20 years, we have segued from serious engagement in Asia and a leadership role in the Pacific to marginal significance in the affairs of Asia (except as a massive mine and a source of hydrocarbons) and irrelevance in the Pacific.
The Morrison government in particular has been less asleep at the wheel than dead in the water.
China values only our iron ore and our coking coal. It certainly does not value us. It treats us with contempt, largely for reasons of our own making. Since the election of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Japan regards us as the bumbling and embarrassing hayseed from the south. It indulges in a measure of schadenfreude as China metaphorically belts us for an outspokenness it would like to emulate but is too smart and tactful to replicate.
Singapore wonders why we are so crass. Malaysia has forgotten we exist. As for Indonesia, it cannot understand why we have walked away from three decades of patient and rewarding relationship-building (yes, the pain of Timor Leste’s independence notwithstanding) to casual disdain. And that is mutual.
Only India offers us any hope of some form of regional relevance. Even that hope is built on the chimera of “shared values” and a prime-ministerial rediscovery of curry, cricket and the Commonwealth. But for all the excitement and hyperventilation associated with “the Quad”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repression of Muslims domestically and his reluctance to join with his Quad partners in any form of international strategic response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine demonstrates just how flimsy that construct is. And we are too supine to suggest Modi might do better.
Of course, we still have America. We have upgraded our membership status in the ANZUS frequent fighters club from acquiescent ally to accepting acolyte, creating AUKUS to provide just a tinge of colonial cringe. Former foreign minister Marise Payne dutifully backed in Mike Pompeo’s (and Donald Trump’s) demands for an “independent international inquiry” into the origins of the Covid pandemic. For its part, the US proclaimed “it had our backs” then, along with Canada and New Zealand, promptly proceeded to pocket more than half of Australia’s trade in goods with China. That is boofhead diplomacy with a “duh”.
In the Pacific, the antics of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare have shown us to be impotent as well as incompetent. It is all very well to take solace from the fact China ran its talks with the Solomons in the theatre of domestic Solomons politics. But the damage has been done: we look bumbling, inept and decidedly small-minded. China is there to stay, heartened by its success and hopeful of making further strategic inroads across the Pacific. It will.
Australia has become a joke in almost every domain of international and security policy
As my recent book No Enemies No Friends details, Australia has isolated itself both in the immediate region and in the broader international community. This is what happens when politicians who lack the trade skills imagine they can conduct Australia’s diplomatic affairs better than the professionals, particularly when they look to the intelligence agencies rather than the responsible policy departments for their advice.
The problem is exacerbated when the pathologies of race, misogyny, isolation, insecurity, dependence (and an inability to self-affirm) determine our perceptions, and when our broad international interests are transacted on the stage of domestic politics rather than in the halls of international business and negotiation.
Sadly, Australia has become a joke in almost every domain of international and security policy, from climate change to pandemic management, from development assistance to arms control and disarmament.
There is a desperate need for a complete recalibration of our strategic policy settings and a consequent reworking of international policy priorities. We live in a disrupted world where the dangers lie in fear, incomprehension and uncertainty rather than a growing array of enemies and threats. We are more a threat to ourselves than China is.
So the new Albanese government has no time to waste in establishing a clear and forthright set of strategic policy goals, and then determining the diplomatic, defence and force-structure tools best able to achieve those goals. We must quickly come to terms with the fact of China’s emergence as the dominant Asian power. Calm, deliberate and clear-eyed relationship-building with China is the primary task. The US is, of course, critically important in this, not as an armed-to-the-teeth ally in threatening to release the dogs of war but as a powerful, constructive and engaged advocate of a modernised international rules-based order that it not only supports in principle but honours in practice.
While the rethink is under way, we need quick action too. There is much repair work to be done, especially in the Pacific. New Zealand (where we like to send undesirables as a token of our maturity), Fiji and the Solomon Islands need urgent re-engagement, as do Indonesia and Malaysia. They are easy first steps, and if the Foreign Minister were receptive to my suggestion, the Pacific should be the first action item.
But make no mistake, the longer-term task demanding considerably more adroitness and deliberation is the re-establishment of an adult relationship with China. That will be arduous and tricky.
Senator Penny Wong is the ideal minister to bring that to fruition.
Tanya Martin Office Manager
Jake Wishart Senior Media Adviser