By James Curran*
Although 2022 brought a change of government in Australia and a new public tone to its diplomacy — particularly towards relations with China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific — it also revealed Australia’s deep-seated geopolitical anxieties.
The new Labor Party government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, stopped beating the ‘drums of war’ and looked towards respectful, if cautious, cooperation with Beijing. Though it also underlined its strong commitment to the pillars of its predecessors’ policy. This included its commitment to the US alliance, increased defence spending and closer cooperation with India and Japan.
In November last year, on the eve of Albanese’s meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit in Bali — the first such encounter between Australian and Chinese leaders since 2015 — Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles restated Australia’s strategic outlook. He noted that ‘the world around us has become more uncertain and more precarious than at any time since the end of the Second World War’.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong has also stressed that Australia faced ‘the most vexing set of circumstances in the post-war period’. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and mounting tensions over Taiwan appeared to confirm US President Joe Biden’s framing of a global contest between autocracies and democracies.
Albanese and his government’s senior ministers made a solid start on prioritising diplomacy in Australian foreign and defence policy. Labor demonstrated continuity on the Quad, AUKUS and deepening security relations with Japan.
That included deepening ties with New Delhi, building on meetings between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in March 2022 and the signing of a free trade agreement with India just before the May federal election. Ministerial exchanges continued between Australia and India after Labor took office.
While the Labor government broke with the Morrison cabinet’s tendency to shout at China, it has not played down the difficulties of relations with Beijing. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi attributed the tensions over recent years entirely to Australia. And in his first weeks in office, Albanese confessed that there is still a ‘long way to go’ in rebuilding the relationship.
Labor has achieved a cautious resumption of ministerial contact with Beijing at the highest levels, but this has not led to any reprieve from China’s economic coercion. Two Australian citizens, Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei, remain detained in Chinese prisons on murky charges. The central question for 2023 will be what might flow from the current ‘stabilisation’ of Australia’s relations with China, such as the possible relaxation of Chinese tariffs on Australian imports.
The Albanese government is attempting to develop a working relationship of sorts with China. Wong, after meeting her counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing in December 2022, acknowledged the two countries’ ongoing differences but added that ‘the challenge for this generation is to navigate those differences wisely’.
With anxieties about what China’s bullying means for Australian security, the Labor government emphasised that it will deepen Australia’s relationship with Washington. Marles has expressed Labor’s ongoing commitment to the US alliance. Following a meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in October 2022, he said that ‘our alliance with the United States is completely central to our national security and to our worldview’.
These developments took place against the backdrop of increasing tensions between the United States and China. In August 2022, a visit to Taiwan by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi heightened the tension in a relationship already reeling from trade wars, rhetorical insults and mutual suspicion and enmity.
Australia had little option but to play a straight bat. Before the seriousness of China’s live-firing exercises were known, Wong emphasised that ‘all parties’ should de-escalate tensions. But as the gravity of China’s military exercises became clearer, the foreign minister called on Beijing to exercise restraint.
The Albanese government also renewed Australia’s approach to its Southeast Asian neighbours. Wong, while stressing that Canberra’s focus on ASEAN centrality ‘does not mean [an] ASEAN only’ foreign policy, places the Quad and AUKUS in a broader narrative of regional security engagement.
In in December last year, Wong emphasised the Quad’s role as working ‘alongside ASEAN and other regional architecture’ in a speech in Washington. Wong also reminded the United States that it had work to do in reducing the likelihood of conflict with China and convincing the region that it has a serious economic plan for countries to engage with. Wong called on Beijing, too, to work towards regional stability and ensure more transparency over its military spending.
At the annual Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations in Washington last year, ministers signed off on an extension of US force posture initiatives in Australia. Japan and Australia also set in motion a plan to deploy Japanese fighters to Australia. A Defence Strategic Review set to be handed down in early 2023 will, among other things, announce the way ahead on Australia’s acquisition of a nuclear submarine capability under the auspices of the AUKUS agreement.
One of the major stories of 2023 and beyond will therefore be the tough fiscal choices awaiting Albanese’s cabinet in bringing this ambitious vision for the nation’s defence to fruition.
*About the author: James Curran is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sydney.