Albanese falls into same trap as previous governments
Anthony Albanese within hours of being installed as prime minister fell into the same trap many other Australian leaders have over Washington. On his first day of office, while there are so many domestic issues and administrative issues to contend with, Albanese rushed off to Tokyo with Foreign Minister Penny Wong for a meeting with the QUAD alliance.
Central to Albanese’s narrative was his new government’s stance on taking much stronger climate change approach. Albanese held his first face to face meeting with US President Biden on the sidelines of the QUAD meeting, on his second day as prime minister. Albanese went on to meet European leaders at the NATO Summit and pay a courtesy visit to President Zelenskyy of Ukraine.
These early meetings strongly symbolise the new government’s continued support of the US alliance and the tradition of Australian prime ministers posturing to US presidents. Some ALP rank and file are disappointed Albanese didn’t use his influence to bring Julian Assange back to Australia.
While there have been many urgent economic issues arising since Albanese came to power, he has chosen to spend most of his time outside Australia, suggesting his administration may focus heavily on foreign affairs during his term.
Letting any opportunity of rapprochement with China slip away
Albanese’s government has chosen to maintain a more adversarial approach to China, while supporting US Indo-Pacific initiatives. This makes Australia the exception to most other Pacific and South East Asia countries which have been learning how to attune their narratives and diplomatic gestures towards accepting dual presence of two-military and economic superpowers within the region.
Albanese has continued former prime minister Scott Morrison’s approach of being the odd man out in the region.
China sent out a number of messages to Albanese after his election win in a conciliatory manner, that implied China wanted to reset bilateral relations.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong did meet with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Summit in Bali, Indonesia, early in July. Wang Yi was reported to say that “As the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Australia draws near, China is ready to re-examine, re-calibrate, and reinvigorate bilateral ties in the spirit of mutual respect, and strive to bring bilateral relations back on the right track.”
According to reports, China made four demands to the Albanese Government as a basis to normalize relations. These are;
- Australia must treat China as a partner, not an adversary,
- Both countries, must adhere to a path of seeking common ground while reserving differences,
- Both countries must adhere to not targeting or being controlled by third parties, and
- Both countries must build a positive and pragmatic foundation of public opinion.
This is consistent with the Chinese Government press release, although they were not framed as demands, but aspirations. This appears to have been interpreted negatively by both the Australian Government, academics, and media commentators in Australia.
This Penny Wong-Wang Yi meeting was preceded with a congratulatory message from Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, and a very conciliatory message from the new Chinese Ambassador to Australia Xian Qian, during a speech at the University of Technology, Sydney.
However, Albanese appears to be locked into the same rhetoric as his predecessor demanding China lift sanctions off Australian exports to China, and condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before relations can be normalised. This went down very well in the Australian media.
China has a much more complex view of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, where it criticized Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state very early on, but at the same time recognises Russia’s security concerns. China also condemned Western sanctions against Russia.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles met with Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe in Singapore. However, this one-hour meeting didn’t go as well, in what could be called a ‘mismatch of semantics.’
The greatest hinderance to the Australia-China relationship today is the Albanese government’s insensitivity todays China’s diplomatic narratives. The company Albanese has sort over Europe and the Indo-Pacific, like the NATO Summit criticized China. Penny Wong’s activities in the Pacific Islands is seen as a rebuke to the Chinese presence there. Albanese’s likening Russia’s war with Ukraine with China’s policy on Taiwan received criticism from the English language China Daily. The ultimate objective of AUKUS is to develop the stealth capability to position submerged weapons off the coast of China.
The Albanese government doesn’t understand the history of South-East Asia where China has been there for centuries, coexisting with the various peoples there. This is reflected in the foreign and defence policies of most ASEAN countries. Empathy (although this doesn’t mean agreement) is necessary to understand the Chinese position, where as a nation it is encircled by a web of US bases across the Indo-Pacific with offensive weapons.
China has a complex view of the world and has only asked Australia to refrain from looking at the world through black and white metaphors. With the number of Asian based political and strategic academics and Australian National University in Canberra, now with DFAT headed by a foreign minister of Asian heritage, its surprising the Albanese government still looks at the world in the same way as governments before it.
The only explanation for the Albanese Government’s stance is that public opinion and the general media have a hostile view of China. The government is playing to the electorate and appeasing the US in its current stance.
Putting the situation in the schoolyard metaphor, Australia is trying to punch well above its weight aspiring towards nuclear powered submarines. Here in Asia, there is a saying “your neighbours are the walls protecting your home.” Australia needs to look towards common strategic views with its close neighbours. Rather than pretend to be a member of NATO, and look for photo opportunities in the Ukraine, the immediate region should be the greatest priority.
The government might have changed, but like the last, Albanese still aspires for Australia to be a middle power. This is not going to work with China.