Home Agenda A new Australian foreign policy agenda under Albanese

A new Australian foreign policy agenda under Albanese

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Author: Allan Gyngell, ANU

Australian observers seem to think that the Albanian government’s foreign and national security policies will not differ much from those of its predecessor.

The argument makes sense. Australian foreign policy has always had a strong bipartisan core – commitment to the US alliance, engagement with the region and support for a rules-based international order. In the 2022 election campaign, Labor was determined not to allow any exploitable national security policy gaps to appear between itself and the Morrison government.

But while some of the early statements and speeches by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Defense Minister Richard Marles strongly echoed those of their predecessors, the changes ahead will be bigger than expected.

Albanese’s early trips to the Quad leaders’ meeting in Tokyo, to Madrid for the NATO summit and to Kyiv reassured allies that the new Australian government’s support for the United States and the Quad and his opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine were rock solid. The prime minister also mended relations with France, which had been shattered by the Morrison government’s cancellation of a contract to purchase French submarines.

Albanese’s first bilateral international visit was to Indonesia, which underscored the importance of Australia-Indonesia relations. He reassured President Joko Widodo that Australia would not boycott the G20 leaders’ meeting because of Vladimir Putin’s presence, as Scott Morrison had threatened. Regional solidarity and Australia’s national interest in the survival of the G20 trumped US pressure on Russia rather than Ukraine.

The announcement of a possible Chinese security agreement with the Solomon Islands allowed the Labor Party to attack the Morrison government during the election campaign. As soon as the new Foreign Secretary, Senator Penny Wong, returned from the Quad meeting, she made three quick visits to the Pacific before returning with Albanese for a meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. They underscored Australia’s intention to listen respectfully to countries in the region and recognize their interests, including their attitudes towards major power involvement in the region.

Australia’s shift to a more ambitious carbon reduction commitment was a precondition for consolidating Australia’s position in the region, as Pacific island countries are the most vulnerable to climate change . The Pacific Islands Forum’s role as a regional policy clearinghouse was strengthened and South Pacific leaders agreed to bid with Australia to co-host the United Nations Summit on climate change COP29 in 2024. This marked another change – a return to support for multilateral approaches to solving international problems and for the United Nations.

Unlike its predecessor, the new government’s language on China has been disciplined. Careful steps were taken to “stabilize” the relationship. Neither side backed down from its core positions, but Marles met his Chinese counterpart at the Shangri-La dialogue and Wong met with the foreign minister at the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting.

Too much has changed for relations to regain the sweetness of the early 2000s, but it is no longer impossible to imagine productive exchanges on subjects of mutual interest.

After years of marginalization, foreign policy has regained a more central place in Australian politics. Wong will be a powerful foreign secretary and an influential member of the Labor leadership team.

The tone is new, and the tone matters. In Wong’s words, foreign policy “begins with who we are.” The first actions of the Albanian government were designed to present Australia to the world and the region as an evolving multicultural society that draws on the knowledge of its First Nations people. Albanese traveled to Indonesia with a Malaysian-born foreign minister and an industry minister who is Australia’s Muslim prime minister.

These changes have the practical effect of signaling to the region Australia’s desire to work as an integrated partner with South East Asia, the South Pacific, Japan and India through the complexities ahead. “ASEAN’s centrality,” Wong told a conference in Singapore, “means that we will always think about our security in the context of your security.”

The legacy of Labor’s militant and social democratic traditions will influence new Labor ministers. Their field of vision will be broader than the Morrison government’s framing of a struggle between an “arc of autocracies” and liberal democracies. They will appreciate the contributions of civil servants and these civil servants will find, for the most part, political bosses who know their memoirs and who have their own ideas.

Australia’s new government is still being settled and the challenges ahead will be difficult. The outlook for the global economy is bleak. Human rights concerns in countries with which Australia wishes to develop relations will clash with other national interests. The impact of climate change will continue to worsen. And the next three years will reveal whether the United States can still deploy a global strategy that is both principled and consistent across changing administrations.

But weighing the balance between continuity and change in Australian foreign policy, it is likely that political impulses and external dynamics will bring more change of substance and impact under the Albanian government than many realize now.

Allan Gyngell is Honorary Professor at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University and National President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA).