Labor win the Australian election

On May 21st, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was elected into power, making Anthony Albanese prime minister. He replaces Scott Morrison of the Liberal-National Coalition (the Coalition), who immediately resigned as the party’s leader.

How Australia’s foreign policy will evolve

A recent article in Britain’s World looked at some of the surface level similarities and differences in key defence and foreign policy points between Labor and the Coalition. The results of the election and immediate actions of the Albanese government warrant their further investigation. It is evident that Australia is on a new, yet somewhat familiar, path.

Pacific countries and Southeast Asia

‘We will listen, because we care what the Pacific has to say’ were some of the first words[↗] of Penny Wong, Australia’s new Foreign Minister, after being sworn into her position. Indeed, national security matters stemming from the signing of a security agreement[↗] between the Solomon Islands and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are of concern to Labor. 

Wong’s rhetoric immediately evidences a different Australian approach to the Pacific countries – one that will be less absorbed with grand narratives and more concerned with addressing the domestic concerns of these small island countries. This is also evident in Labor’s renewed commitments to them  

Labor has pledged[↗] to enhance Australia’s efforts in aiding the Pacific countries’ post-Covid recovery by increasing official development assistance to the tune of AU$525 million (£295). It also endeavours to bolster maritime security through increased cooperation, and better funding for the Pacific Maritime Security Programme to better tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It will attempt to deepen people-to-people links by creating a Pacific engagement Visa.

Ramping up Australia’s efforts to fight climate change is also a key pillar in its approach to the Pacific countries. Labor campaigned as a climate conscious party, and one that would improve Australia’s oft-lacklustre performance in this regard internationally. Climate change is arguably the most pressing concern of the Pacific countries, and Labor’s position will be well received.

It will also be well received in Southeast Asia, where domestic issues also dominate the concerns of the region’s governments and citizens – with the adverse effects of climate change being of particular importance. Labor has earmarked a AU$200 (£112) million climate and infrastructure partnership with Indonesia in its National Security Plan.

Labor has also pledged to create a brand new Office of Southeast Asia in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and appoint a new ‘dedicated’ ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. These two pledges, particularly the former, underscore Labor’s desire to be a ‘genuine partner[↗]’ in the region, and develop a level of understanding and trust that was lacking under the Coalition.

The waters ahead in Southeast Asia and the Pacific remain murky, however. The signing of the AUKUS pact between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US) was born out of an acknowledgement of rising geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific, and Southeast Asian governments are loath to see their region reduced to a mere piece in a larger geostrategic puzzle. Labor will need to show that its plans and pledges to be a ‘genuine partner’ can materialise into an Australia commitment to Southeast Asia that reflects its close proximity and shared history as Asian actors. This will require adroit diplomacy and consistent engagement.

These two ingredients are also essential for Labor’s foreign policy cookbook for the Pacific countries. Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, is currently visiting[↗] eight of these island countries where fears have already arisen regarding the potential establishment[↗] of a Chinese ‘first island chain’ containing the naval and diplomatic reach of both Australia and New Zealand. Increased aid, cooperation and climate consciousness will only go so far. Wong’s visit[↗] to Fiji in her first week in office and immediately after being in Japan for the 2022 Quad summit is nevertheless an encouraging start.

The PRC

Labor’s biggest challenge, however, lies in the PRC. The bilateral relationship has reached new lows with high-level dialogue frozen and swathes of Australian goods sanctioned by Beijing. Despite misleading claims by the Coalition in an endeavour to win domestic points by positioning Albanese as ‘soft’ on the PRC, Labor’s stance on policy regarding the PRC is almost identical[↗] to that of the preceding government.

It seems Labor will approach the PRC with more balanced rhetoric, however, and avoid the sensationalist tone that so characterised the Coalition’s way of engaging the PRC over the last three years. Wong has suggested[↗] this will be the case.

This is unlikely to herald a ‘reset’, however, as Labor too has acknowledged the change in character of the Chinese state and what this requires of Australia. It may yet allow for some normalcy to return in the relationship. Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier, congratulated[↗] Albanese on his election victory, and as has been pointed out[↗], the Chinese Communist Party has previously used the appointment of a new government as a chance to iron out creases without appearing to be weak.

To be sure, a more measured approach will perhaps pay some dividends in the mid to long-term. The bilateral relationship will nonetheless remain tumultuous.  Rising geopolitical tensions and Chinese assertiveness will continue to trouble the relationship, as will Australia’s ever firm and growing relationships with Japan, India, the UK and the US. 

Leading Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic partners

Australia has demonstrated to the international community in recent years that it is not afraid to stick its nose out in front and resist attempts to undermine or revise the free and open international order in the Indo-Pacific. Sometimes this has been done counterproductively and with little thought to the repercussions, yet in instances it has blazed a trail for other nations to follow, evidenced by Australia’s banning[↗] of Huawei from its 5G equipment. Whether this is a net-positive or net-negative stance is irrelevant to the fact that it has increased Australia’s strategic value and relevance to countries such as India, Japan, the US and the UK.

Labor’s relationship with India and Japan will follow that of the Coalition. They are vital Indo-Pacific partners in defence and security cooperation. Japan and Australia signed[↗] a Reciprocal Access Agreement in January and Labor will continue to deepen the partnership. Despite differing views on Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine, Australia and India’s view of the broader global security situation are on parallel plains.

Australia will remain a stalwart ally for the UK and US. AUKUS receives broad support from Labor, yet it promises[↗] a ‘frank assessment’ of how Australia is to bolster its national security in the future, potentially putting the agreement’s expensive and complicated nuclear submarine deal in the firing line. The ‘Anglosphere’ is nevertheless as close as it has been since Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1972 and it looks poised to get closer.

Conclusion

The 2022 Summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, held days after the Australian election, was to be Albanese and Wong’s first overseas visit and it encapsulated the incoming government’s foreign policy well.

Albanese’s opening statement underscored Australia’s commitment to a ‘free, open, and resilient Indo-Pacific’, the upholding of which will require the collective action of the groupings’ members and like-minded partners such as the UK. ‘Taking action on climate change’ was noted as a key priority of Australia, a nod to Labor’s more climate conscious stance and to the nations of Southeast Asia and island countries of the Pacific, with both being directly mentioned. The PRC’s rising assertiveness revitalised the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and made the summit happen.

After nine years in the wilderness, the Labor Party is in power in Australia. It takes hold of the reins in an uncertain time in Australian history, and global affairs more broadly. It brings a fresh approach to Canberra regarding defence and foreign policy, and provides a new rudder to help guide Australia through it.

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

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