Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s successful visit to Indonesia shows that he is ready to continue a cracking pace of diplomatic engagement as Australia faces an increasingly contested region.
Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s focus on Southeast Asia, coupled with an impeccable tone and messaging to Indonesia — delivered in Bahasa — and her willingness to listen will be well received in Asia. Her equally masterful outreach to the Pacific nations coinciding with the Chinese foreign minister’s tour of the region has demonstrated that a good diplomacy delivered with humility and respect for Australia’s neighbors goes a long way in pursuing national interests.
While the diplomatic honeymoon will eventually end, the first month of the new government offers an opportunity to set a new tone for Australia’s engagement with the region.
The former Prime Minister Scott Morrison described Australia’s international environment as “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly.”
The early signs are that the Albanese government shares this assessment.
The fault lines between the United States and China continue to deepen. China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and reluctance of many of our Asian neighbors to condemn it sets a dangerous precedent in our own region. The global economy is under stress with high inflation, supply chain bottlenecks, and rising energy, commodity and food prices. COVID-19 is persistently present in Asia. The region is facing immediate impacts of climate change.
Still, even in such challenging times, Australia’s neighborhood is showing the strongest post-pandemic economic vitality. Regional mobility is back. Asia is learning to live with COVID-19. And competition between China and the United States need not lead to war.
Australia has been responding to these new realities. The past three years have seen a reorganization of our foreign policy in the face of the growing challenge from China.
We should expect this to continue through policies aimed at building resilience and sovereignty, deepening our alliance with the United States, and preserving a rules-based order and balance of power in Asia. These are the tenets of Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy, first articulated in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper and subsequently strengthened by the Morrison government.
The Albanese government has been clear that while there will be continuity in many areas of foreign policy, it will put its own stamp on Australia’s engagement in Asia. There is an opportunity now to present a positive vision for Australia’s future in Asia that resonates with our regional partners and is accepted by Australian people, who are clearly concerned about mounting global challenges, such as climate change and a weakening global economy.
This cannot be done if Australia frames its approach to Asia solely through the lens of competition with China. Anthony Albanese must be more than a national security prime minister.
One way the government can frame 21st century Australian foreign policy is to anchor it in the concept of a shared region, where Australia is an active member and a responsible citizen shaping the security and prosperity of the region, in tandem with its regional partners.
A shared region means maintaining open trade and economic connectivity. Asia is facing a bifurcation of technologies, rules, and standards, caused by partial U.S.-China decoupling and economic nationalism. But it remains in the interests of Australia and our partners in Asia to promote an open, rules-based economic order, while protecting our economies from coercion and over-dependencies on China.
A shared region means a shared responsibility for security in Asia. It means recognizing that many of our most important partners in Asia don’t want to choose between the United States and China. Nor do they want to be viewed simply as pawns in a new “great game,” as we saw last week when Pacific leaders rejected China’s proposal for a regional security and economic compact. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo reinforced Indonesia’s unwillingness to be drawn into either side of the U.S.-China competition: China is noticeably absent in the Jokowi-Albanese Joint Leaders Statement.
A shared region means confronting pandemics, economic inequality, and climate change together. Wong’s acknowledgment last week of the centrality of the climate change threat to Australia and our Pacific and Asian neighbors resonates strongly with our near neighbors. A substantive increase in Australian aid budget will also reaffirm our credentials as a committed regional citizen.
Finally, a shared region is shaped by people. As a champion of migration, tourism, education, and professional mobility, Australia must rebuild its reputation as a welcoming and open country, empowered by a flow of students and scholars, migrants, tourists, and professionals from the region.
Deepening our Asia capability is the final piece of a shared region vision. To be a part of the region requires a deep understanding of countries, people, and systems in Asia.
The challenges facing Australia are formidable. To navigate them we must accept our place and responsibilities in our shared region and commit to keeping it secure, prosperous and thriving, together with our neighbors.
Can Anthony Albanese be the first Australian leader to put the debate about his nation’s place in Asia to bed, by placing Australia — once and for all — at the heart of a shared region?