Under Labor leadership, Australia has a chance to end its foreign policy incoherence
- With Aukus and the Quad, Australia’s capability to engage, at least on security matters, with democracies in the region has grown. However, this has not played into a larger vision of Australia’s place in the region
- Whether on the Pacific or China, Australia’s foreign policy needs clarity and coherence
For almost a decade, Australia has been governed by the conservative Liberal-National Coalition, which undoubtedly led the nation through profound domestic and regional turbulence. Yet, rather than emerge with a renewed sense of ambition or self-assurance on the world stage, Australia’s foreign policy has consistently exhibited incoherence and uncertainty.
Indeed Penny Wong, Australia’s new foreign minister, has acknowledged this in the past, stating that, “Our nation has not known such a vexing convergence of circumstances since World War II”.
Yet there is a difference between recognising change and responding to it. With a new progressive government under the Labor Party taking over, Australia has a crucial opening to rejuvenate its position on the world stage.
The problem is that none of these developments have played into a larger vision of Australia’s place in the region. Indeed, beneath a thin top layer of high-level security agreements, Australia’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific as a whole has been in a state of confusion and decline.
If Australia sees what it calls the “Pacific family” as just that, its engagement with the region must be built on relationships of equal status, which recognise the agency of individual nations. Here we see the confusion in Australia’s foreign policy: is it a true member of the Pacific family or is it a distant parental figure dictating what goes and what doesn’t?
Australia must recognise that although its ties with the Pacific are close, it is merely one player in the region, and China will always play a role if not serving as a vexing counterweight to Australia and the US.
The same lack of coherence characterises Australia’s relationship with China itself. In 2014, then prime minister Tony Abbot declared his goal for Australia to become “a true friend” of the country. Today, all one seems to hear are hawkish calls to “prepare for war”.
It is telling that while the government has pledged to invest A$270 billion (US$190 billion) to boost defence capabilities, funding for the diplomatic service has been in decline, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s operating budget being reduced by an estimated 9 per cent over two decades
This has been matched by a dearth of investment in Australia’s Asia literacy. For example, in some crucial regional languages such as Bahasa Indonesia, enrolment rates are so low that experts have been sounding the alarm bells of a “crisis”. Again, despite the warning signs of an “extinction” in Bahasa Indonesia education, no strategy was put in place to reverse the tide.
If Australia is to truly realise its place in Asia, preparing the next generation of leaders with the appropriate linguistic and cultural skills must be seen as a matter of national security.
There has not been a whole-of-society approach to both dealing with a more complex Asia and realising our place within it. A First-Nations-led foreign policy by the incoming government, and the Asian-Australians newly elected to parliament, may provide the necessary momentum for a fresh start.
As the region becomes the centre of economic and geopolitical activity, it is time for ambitious and coherent policy vision, which reinforces Australia’s commitments to its traditional partners but also recognises a shared responsibility for our region – including with China.
Chris Khatouki is an associate at Asia Society Australia and a PhD Scholar at UNSW, Sydney. The views shared in this article are the author’s alone