Australian election: defence and foreign policy

On 21st May 2022, a federal election will take place in Australia. Scott Morrison, currently the Prime Minister, of the Liberal-National Coalition (the Coalition) and Anthony Albanese of the Labour Party are the frontrunners. There is some convergence between both parties on foreign policy and defence issues, but  there are also key points of difference. These are worth noting as the race for Parliament House is looking like it will go down to the wire.

AUKUS, the trilateral agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), receives bipartisan support. A Labour government will not alter Australia’s stance on the agreement, and it will continue supporting its expansion and working towards equipping Australia with nuclear submarines. A Labour government will also maintain Australia’s close security relationship with the UK and alliance with the US.

The Coalition government has pledged[↗] to increase defence spending to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) and Labour is in lockstep with this. Labour has, however, pledged[↗] to conduct an independent ‘Defence Posture Review’ into Australia’s military strategy and resources. This will, it is thought, better prepare the Australian Defence Force for the rapidly changing circumstances of, and heightened geopolitical rivalry in, the Indo-Pacific.

Regarding the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Labour, like the Coalition, acknowledges its growing economic and military strength and ability to threaten Australia. The recently signed PRC-Solomons security pact has made this painfully clear. A Labour government, however, will possibly strive for a different kind of relationship with the PRC and Asia more broadly.

Australia’s relationship with the PRC plummeted[↗] under the current government – diplomatic relations are frozen. To be sure, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasing authoritarianism and use of economic statecraft against Australia has certainly complicated the relationship and contributed to its deterioration. The Coalition government is not exonerated when it comes to this issue, however.

Australia’s rhetoric concerning the PRC has taken a sensationalist, at times provocative, turn, as the government has become fixated on the PRC and the apparently black and white geopolitical situation its rise has created. This fixation and narrative has seeped into domestic debates and policy. Australia is now frequently positioned in the PRC as a US ‘aircraft carrier[↗]’ or simple ‘pawn[↗]’. This fixation has also seen Australia neglect other commitments in Asia.

A Labour government may be able to ‘reset’ Australia’s relationship with the PRC through some adroit diplomacy and choice policies. In its approach to the PRC – which will remain competitive – it has suggested[↗] that it will employ more balanced rhetoric and refrain from playing on related security issues for the domestic Australian audience – the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will take a lot more of the responsibility. This is an approach similar to New Zealand’s. A total ‘reset’ will be difficult, but such an approach will at least see tensions simmer.

Albanese has also stated[↗] that Australia should capitalise on its ‘privilege of proximity’ regarding Asia, loosely echoing the maxim of Paul Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia, that Australia should seek ‘security in Asia, not from Asia[↗]’. This suggests that Labour will engage more with so-called ‘middle powers’ in the region, as well as with the smaller nations of Southeast Asia. This will not be simple, and Labour will need to think hard[↗] about new and constructive avenues for engagement. The Coalition government, to be sure, has kept up Australia’s relationship with regional partners in Asia, however, it has at times overlooked their importance due to its fixation on the PRC, and pushed them away with its binary rhetoric.

It is not common in Australian politics for the Coalition and Labor to have such divergences in foreign and defence policy. Increasing global geopolitical competition has raised the calibre of its importance, as has the state of Australia’s relationship with the PRC, which remains Australia’s biggest trade partner.

Whatever the result, Australia will remain one of the UK’s strongest Indo-Pacific partners. The implied foreign policy of a Labor government in the region may, however, require further contemplation in London when considering language around Indo-Pacific security issues, especially when done in tandem with Canberra.

The foreign and defence policy debate in Australia is heating up in preparation for 21st May. As are the barbecues.

Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy.

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