Wednesday Feb 08, 2023

Penny Wong promised a new approach to rising China. Did she deliver?

On the day before the election then Prime Minister Scott Morrison received an urgent warning from a steadfast ally in a fracturing Pacific.

Like many Pacific islands, Micronesia is now influential far beyond its size as Beijing asserts influence in a region vital to the global defence of America (and by extension Australia).

President David Panuelo was ringing the alarm about a Chinese proposal for co-operation with 10 nations on a range of issues, but especially security and law enforcement.

David Panuelo
Micronesia’s President David Panuelo (with China’s Premier Li Keqiang) sounded an early warning to Australia on China and security. Photo: Getty

“China is seeking […] to acquire access and control of our region,” President Panuelo wrote to Mr Morrison and other regional leaders the day before the election, according to a leaked copy of the correspondence.

“I believe [this] is the single most, game-changing proposed agreement in the Pacific in any of our lifetimes.”

Foreign and security policy featured to an unusual degree in the recent election campaign.

Labor promised to revive diplomacy after what it said had been a half-hearted effort as the Solomon Islands stood on the verge of signing a hugely consequential security deal with China.

And as attention centred on the Quad and Tokyo, the Albanese government’s first real foreign policy challenge had already landed in its in tray.

Under new management?

So has the new government done anything different?

Sources across the region tell The New Daily that Australia will not, as expected, make any frontal lobbying efforts in response to Beijing’s proposal out of respect for sovereignty.

Australia has been making a more modest case that the plans would undermine the Pacific Islands Forum.

Any vote on whether to adopt China’s security plans and far-reaching proposals seems set to be determined by the state of countries’ relationships with China and whether the plans will produce economic benefits.

Melanesian countries, including the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, are likely supporters while Samoa and Micronesia – which can look to America for its defence – are positioned on the other side.

But senior ministers in some nations were as late as Thursday expressing indifference about the plan and awaiting a planned visit and sales pitch from China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Senator Wong’s trip did not effect immediate changes, nor could it have, but did clear signal a new and longer view on what might tip the difference.

She focused her first official visit on relationships with the PIF, a grouping still limping after an internal leadership dispute but which will be the main counterpoint to a future vision where co-operation is led by Beijing.

Ms Wong met the PIF Secretary-General and addressed its secretariat two days before her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi was set to arrive in Suva.

penny wong Fiji
Penny Wong met Henry Puna, the Secretary-General of the Pacific Island Forum, on her first solo overseas trip as Foreign Minister. Photo: Getty

“We will listen,” the minister said in her address late on Thursday. “Climate change is not an abstract threat, but an existential one.”

A reluctance to utter such sentences has held back our image in the Pacific, but their embrace also led to new co-operation with the US and the Quad.

But another relationship hangs over Australia’s foreign policy and it won’t be so easily remedied.

The new government representing Australia on the world stage was an occasion for media commentators to shower Labor in praise after tarring it with low expectations.

Last time it was in power, Labor oversaw the defence posture review, the marine rotation in Darwin and space and radar installations. And yet Anthony Albanese, into his third decade in public life, was said to have passed his first test for not immediately blowing up ANZUS.

Labor had played a dead bat to news Premier Li Keqiang may be seeking a rapprochement because it recently saw off a scare campaign.

Hot, angry, shrill

Recently the media shows enthusiasm for anything resembling a pushback to Xi Jinping from Mr Albanese.

This creates an incentive to fuel a national debate on China that the Economist described as “hot, angry and shrill”.

In the campaign this peaked with the former defence minister saying Australia must prepare for war or ringing the alarm about a ship passing outside the boundaries of our territorial sea. 

Whether it can withstand the madding press and take a clear and realistic view on China will determine the success of Labor’s foreign policy approach, especially in the Pacific.

In the Pacific reactions to China’s security proposal are tempered by what foreign policy types call realism.

As one European diplomat said after a discussion of the security plan and China’s motivations: “They are not going to go away though, are they?”

China’s increased assertion of its national interests was a perhaps inevitable consequence of the growth in its economic interests which in turn was always likely to overturn some pieces in the great game of international competition.

Managing decline does not make for an inspiring title for a foreign policy white paper, but it is just another way of saying that diplomacy is the art of the possible.

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