Anthony Albanese flew into his first major foreign policy challenge just hours after being sworn in as Prime Minister, as regional tensions over China intensified at a key security summit.
Mr Albanese, working to a Whitlam-like schedule of expediency, was sworn in as Prime Minister on Monday as part of a kitchen cabinet composed of his deputy, Richard Marles (employment and acting PM); Penny Wong (foreign affairs); Jim Chalmers (treasurer) and Katy Gallagher (finance and, for now, attorney-general).
Counting from Saturday’s election has Labor on 73 seats with nine still in doubt, or three short of a majority.
The new Prime Minister revealed he had approached a group of independents (not Greens leader Adam Bandt) to ensure he could govern even if counting does not break his way.
A more delicate balancing act was presenting in Tokyo, to which Foreign Minister Wong and Mr Albanese flew after dropping by the Governor-General.
Australia is one of four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a bloc designed to be a counterweight to Chinese dominance in our region and one of Australia’s most important strategic alliances.
Mr Albanese was evidently warming up to the task of diplomacy when he said his government would bring continuity but also change to foreign policy.
But he addressed the issue of the awful state of relations with China more directly.
“The relationship with China will remain a difficult one,” he said.
“That has not changed; it is China that has changed.”
China was not something Labor wanted to talk about especially much during the election, even as Coalition attacks suggesting it was soft on China or keen on communism blew up in its face and alienated key voters.
It will soon have to.
Beijing denounces the very concept of the Quad as a tool for supporting American imperialism.
In February Quad foreign ministers pledged to enforce freedom of navigation in the East and South China Seas, areas which Beijing treats as part of its sovereign territory.
Indications suggest the agenda for Quad leaders may produce something even more complicated.
Asked in Tokyo if America would use force to defend Taiwan in the event of a military conflict, President Biden seemed to dispense with a policy of deliberate ambiguity designed to avoid ratcheting up tensions.
“Yes,” the President said.
“It’s a commitment.”
Before Mr Albanese arrived on Monday afternoon, bi-lateral talks between President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, centred on security, with Japan flagging a boost in its defence capability, which follows rising Chinese defence spending.
Mr Albanese stresses that America remains our top alliance and on the big issues on national security and foreign policy there is unlikely to be much difference at all with his predecessor.
But Labor has also previously signalled its openness to changing relations with China, even if only in tone.
Under the previous government Australia’s hardline rhetoric reached a point where a politician meeting with the Chinese ambassador was cause for denunciation.
Minister Wong previously stressed that thawing diplomatic relations was a question for Beijing, though she criticised the politicisation of national security under the Coalition also rejected by our intelligence chiefs.
As an old cliche about only Nixon being able to go to China has it, media critics will tempt the new government to match the rhetoric of its predecessors.
But our closest allies in America and the United Kingdom have deplored Xi Jinping’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang while also keeping lines of communication with Beijing open.
Australia by contrast has been in the deep freeze with our largest trading partner since 2020.
Whether an Albanese government can achieve a similar balance will be one of its first big tests.