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Australia’s regionalism on display at the UNGA

This year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was always going to focus on Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine. The Kremlin’s actions are not only a blatant violation of international law and the principles of the United Nations (UN) Charter, but present many strategic challenges that will require coordinated efforts from world leaders to solve. The UNGA provided the perfect platform for these to be discussed, as well as for each nation to display their condemnation, if they so desired, of Russian expansionism.

Below the surface and headline grabbing remarks, the UNGA was also an opportunity for some fast-paced diplomacy. Indeed, the UNGA was host to many bi-, tri- and multilateral meetings between leaders from across the globe. Penny Wong, the Australian Foreign Minister, was well engaged and received throughout, and an Australian foreign policy underpinned by regionalism has begun to form. Australia is now presenting itself largely as a regional actor first, with Indo-Pacific solutions to Indo-Pacific problems.

Wong still referred to her government as ‘new’ in her national address. She began her speech by briefly underlining the importance of the UN before diving into the prickly topic of Australia’s national identity and relationship with its indigenous population. As she put it: ‘Elevating First Nations voices – including right here – has never been more important.’ Indeed, giving the First Nations people of Australia more of a voice in international affairs has been flagged as a hallmark of how Labor’s foreign policy will be delivered. It conveys a respectful, tolerant and attentive Australia that is prepared to break from past administrations in embracing its difficult history, and to tackle head-on its own domestic issues, a precursor to being presented as part of the solution to others. The presence and input of Patrick Dodson, an Australian Senator and Yawuru elder from Broome, at the UNGA was evidence of this. He partook in some light-hearted ‘beard diplomacy’.

Australia’s regionalist approach to international security was then put on full display. Wong identified Australia as part of the group of ‘small and medium countries’ that will need to work together lest their fate become decided by ‘great powers’. And in working together, Australia was positioned as one of the partners that would be ‘supporting the development of other nations – particularly in the [Indo-Pacific].’ Wong met with Jeremiah Manele, the Foreign Minister of the Solomon Islands, and congratulated Frank Bainimarama, the Fijian Prime Minister, on the launching of the 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific using traditional parlance, and re-emphasised his description of the document as a ‘compass or North Star’ for engaging the South Pacific. This all reaffirms earlier messaging from Wong that Australia will be more attentive to the domestic needs of the Pacific countries in fostering closer relationships.

To be sure, geopolitical matters dominated the agenda and Wong’s engagements. But they were guided by a regionalist approach.

Trilateral meetings occurred on the sidelines between Australia, India and France, as well as Australia, India and Indonesia. The former details Australia’s willingness to continue to work with Euro-Atlantic powers in advancing a ‘peaceful, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific’ (and Australia revived relationship with France) with the latter (the first of its kind) Australia’s desire to work more closely with important regional actors that may not always share a similar worldview. Both underline India’s continued importance in Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Perhaps the most important and publicised meeting was Wong’s bilateral with Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister. As has been well documented, Australia’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took a nosedive with the previous government. Labor has steadied the ship through a calmer, more measured approach in its diplomatic engagement with, and language concerning, the PRC. Wong and Labor want to ‘work towards productive and stable relations with China, based on mutual benefit and respect.’ 

Safeguarding Australia’s short- and long-term Indo-Pacific interests whilst continuing an economic relationship with the PRC is a challenge; the global outlook and Indo-Pacific interests of the two still conflict, and the resuscitated bilateral relationship is still in its infancy. But it is not a challenge that cannot be overcome. Figuring out the ‘areas of mutual benefit’ in the relationship, and where competition should be acknowledged and embraced, will be a first major step. The trajectory so far is nonetheless positive, and proof that sensationalising and inflating the threat emanating from the PRC erects unnecessary diplomatic barriers that are strategically disadvantageous. This is in relation to not only Australia’s bilateral dealings with the PRC, but how it is perceived as an Indo-Pacific actor; isolation can occur when one’s nose is out in front, particularly in a region where many are choosing to hedge between the PRC and United States.

An Australia anchored (and not isolated) in the Indo-Pacific and receptive to Britain’s continued engagement with it and the nations of the region will help cement the UK as a genuine regional partner.

Australia’s Indo-Pacific interests remain unchanged, but the approach being taken by the Labor government, and particularly Wong, represent a distinct departure from the previous administration. It is grounded in the Indo-Pacific, and presents an Australia less concerned with forming and deepening partnerships for geopolitical gain alone, but rather one trying to carve out a role for Australia in the world that will be embraced by the countries closest to it. It is also an approach characterised by a realistic look at the region’s future and an Australian reluctance to be isolated within it, something which partially informs its engagement with the PRC.

For the United Kingdom (UK), this Australian approach is positive. The UK-Australia relationship remains strong. An Australia anchored (and not isolated) in the Indo-Pacific and receptive to Britain’s continued engagement with it and the nations of the region will help cement the UK as a genuine regional partner.

James Cleverly, the new British Foreign Secretary, could take a leaf from Wong’s book. Cleverly is new to the job, whereas Wong was Shadow Foreign Minister for six years before she took hold of the reins in May this year. Her approach is subtle and targeted, with Australian interests at the forefront. In the Indo-Pacific, the UK will need to engage with countries that do not share its values or worldview. Wong is showing that this can be done without merely engaging in a geopolitical transaction or attempting to shift the country in question’s values and global outlook to align more with its own. And it is showing its effectiveness, something Cleverly should note.

Policy must come before language, and it should be targeted. Britain has the ability to engage the Indo-Pacific, but it is still figuring out how. Intensifying geopolitical competition may dominate the concerns of strategic thinkers in the UK, but they do not for many nations of the Indo-Pacific. Britain’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ should be guided and informed by the concerns and needs of the groups and individual nation’s engaged, an approach which still has a sound geostrategic rationale.

Patrick Triglavcanin is a Senior Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy. He specialises in Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

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