Australia’s China Strategy Under the Labor Party

Recent Features

Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania

Australia’s China Strategy Under the Labor Party

Regardless of the government, Australia’s commitment to the Quad – and concerns about China – are here to stay.

Australia’s China Strategy Under the Labor Party
Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan

Despite the war in Ukraine and other complex issues facing the world at the moment, for Australia, the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific remains the biggest concern in terms of defense and national security.

There are five particularly critical issues for Australia in this regard.

First, the serious problem of Chinese interference in Australian domestic politics and economy. Both Liberal and Labor governments have been exposed to various scandals in the recent past, an issue that remains ongoing and difficult to resolve, despite some progress made.

Second, the scenario of a possible invasion of Taiwan and its consequences. Australia is paying close attention to the lessons that the Chinese Communist Party could draw from the Ukrainian experience. For Australian diplomacy, Ukraine is not an isolated event and Canberra has warned about its impact on the Indo-Pacific region and for the fate of the liberal-rooted international system. The point is even more salient amid China’s ongoing, precedent-shattering military drills around Taiwan, in response to the U.S. House speaker’s trip to Taipei.

Third, Beijing’s military expansion and sovereign claims in the South China Sea. Australia maintains a hardline stance against China in this regard, firmly aligned with the U.S. and its regional allies.

Fourth, China’s increasing expansion in the Pacific Islands, Australia’s and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand’s natural area of influence. Let us bear in mind that there are at least four Pacific Island countries (Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands), which have developed national security strategies with funding and technical assistance from Australia. This is in direct collision with China’s renewed intentions to increase its presence and cooperation with small countries in this region – some of which, it should be noted, continue to recognize Taiwan.

Finally, Australia has become a model case of what can happen to countries that dare to openly challenge China, as former Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to do in the context of the pandemic. China punished Australia harshly with economic sanctions that had a strong impact, which is part of the legacy assumed in May by the new Labor premier, Anthony Albanese. Canberra will have to manage the complex dilemma of having China as Australia’s main trading partner by far.

It is for all these reasons that Australia has been one of the great promoters of the Quad since its inception in 2007 and has celebrated its definitive relaunch from 2017. Interestingly, this is a very strong point of agreement between Australia’s Liberal and Labor parties. In fact, no significant changes are expected in the Australian orientation vis-à-vis the Quad and other Indo-Pacific forums and agreements under the new Albanese government. Indeed, Albanese won the election and the next day traveled to Tokyo to participate in the last Quad summit.

In Albanese’s first official speeches, Labor’s imprint could already be seen in relation to some issues such as climate change, but there was full harmony with his Quad peers and a clear continuity with the position of his predecessor Morrison on regional security and on Australia’s position toward China.

Of course, it is also worth remembering the controversy involving Labor for abandoning Quad in 2008, during Kevin Rudd’s government. But these were very particular circumstances, with Japan, Australia, and even India rehearsing a greater rapprochement with China – something that Barack Obama would later endorse in the United States, with his engagement strategy.

But now we are facing a very different world and, especially, a very different Indo-Pacific. In this context, Australia has not only revalidated the importance of the Quad, but has recently gone even further, with the signing last year of the controversial AUKUS. This is a military agreement between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. to allow Australia to develop nuclear-powered submarines, which meant abandoning a project to buy conventional submarines from France. Labor will continue along these lines, despite some reservations expressed by Albanese while campaigning.

With respect to Australia’s relationship with the small Pacific Island countries, it is to be expected that Labor will develop a more proactive approach, maintaining the anti-China rhetoric but seeking to provide viable alternatives to China’s attractive cooperation and investment proposals. There, the issue of climate change, a major regional concern and high on Labor’s agenda, may be one of the main pillars of Australia’s foreign policy toward this subregion.

It is clear that, in order to woo and maintain regional alliances with these economically vulnerable countries, cooperation in defense and security matters is not enough. Kiribati’s recent exit from the Pacific Islands Forum is a clear example of this. Kiribati’s withdrawal was a major blow to Australia; at the same time, a scenario of division in the region clearly favors China’s interests.

Returning to the Quad, this forum enhances and benefits Australia’s strategic position in the region and, at the same time, helps Australia to strengthen its relationship with three powers that are also major trading partners. Australia also has a trilateral mechanism with the U.S. and Japan. From a broader perspective, there is no doubt that Australia, together with India, have been the two big winners of this new conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific to refer to this region, the most populated, dynamic, and economically relevant in the world today.

Perhaps the main problem for Australia is the lack of clarity in the strategic agenda of Quad, which now seems exclusively subordinated to U.S. interests. How to reconcile relations with India – a democracy that is far removed from Western parameters and, moreover, a major military and economic ally of Russia – is another dilemma Albanese will have to solve.

One thing that plays very much in Australia’s favor is that Labor has historically understood China better and has deployed more pragmatic and intelligent diplomacy toward Beijing. Of course, for that same reason they have also been harshly criticized from the other side of the political aisle. The case of the current foreign minister, Penny Wong, is very interesting, with an outstanding background and Malay and Chinese family ancestry. Far from being a weakness, this greater cultural closeness and political sensitivity are clearly assets in this delicate context. It is also a reflection of Australia’s social composition in the 21st century.

To conclude, the new Labor government is facing a great opportunity to further deepen and leverage the benefits of belonging to alliances such as the Quad and AUKUS, beyond their limitations and the dilemmas they pose. At the same time, Albanese is in a position to be able to correct mistakes, both of past Labor administrations and of the outgoing Liberal government.

This article was first published in Spanish by ReporteAsia.