If anyone was expecting a new tilt, a flash of independence from foreign affairs minister Penny Wong’s address to the National Press Club on April 17, they were bound to be disappointed.
The anti-China hawks — the United States State Department, the Pentagon and the Canberra establishment — got their fill.
In reading (and hearing) Wong’s speech, one must always assume the opposite, or something close to it.
Whatever is said about strategic balance, don’t believe a word of it. Occam’s Razor should apply: nothing said by any foreign policy official should ever be taken as independently verified. Best gaze across the Pacific for confirmation.
In Wong’s address, the ill-dressed cliché waltzes with the scantily clad platitude. “When Australians look out to the world, we see ourselves reflected in it — just as the world can see itself reflected in us.”
The basis for this strained nonsense is, at least, promising. Variety can, paradoxically, generate common ground.
“This is a powerful natural asset for building alignment, for articulating our determination to see the interests of all the world’s peoples upheld, alongside our own.”
Wong is mightily aspirational, although such language seems pinched from the Non-Aligned Movement of the Cold War, one that Australia, US deputy of the Asia-Pacific, was never a part of.
No informed listener would assume otherwise. Like a lecture losing steam early, she finally gets to the point of her address: “How [do] we avert war and maintain peace — and more than that, how [do] we shape a region that reflects our national interests and our shared regional interests.”
It does not take long to realise what this entails: talk about “rules, standards and norms — where a larger country does not determine the fate of the smaller country, where each country can pursue its own aspirations, its own prosperity”.
That the US has determined the fate of Australia since World War II — manipulating, interfering and guiding its politics and policies — makes this statement risible, but no less significant.
We are on bullying terrain and Wong is trying to pick the most preferable bully. She can’t quite put it in those terms, so speaks about “the regional balance of power” instead, with Australia performing the role of handmaiden.
She dons the sage’s hat insisting that commentators and strategists have gotten it wrong to talk about “great powers competing for primacy. They love a binary. And the appeal of a binary is obvious. Simple, clear choices. Black and white”.
It takes one, obviously, to know another, and Wong, along with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, have shown little resistance to the very binary concept they supposedly repudiate.
Far from opposing it, their seduction by US power can be seen as a move towards the unitary: there is only one choice for Canberra.
Much of Wong’s speech seems trapped in this register. It rejects the “prism of great power”. It abhors the nature of great powers scrapping and squawking over territories.
And yet, Wong is keen to point the finger to one great power’s behaviour: unstainable lending, political interference, disinformation and reshaping international rules and standards. “China continues to modernise its military at a pace and scale not seen in the world for nearly a century with little transparency or assurance about its strategic intent,” Wong states.
The premise of AUKUS is based around the US’ defence strategy: Washington’s defence budget exceeds those of the next nine powers combined.
Wong did say a conflict over Taiwan “would be catastrophic for all”, but said nothing about how such a conflict could be averted.
Given the Anthony Albanese government has turned up its nose to war powers reform that would have given Parliament a greater say, confidence is hardly brimming.
Wong’s assessment of Australia’s role in international relations is also way off the mark. “We deploy our own statecraft toward shaping a region that is open, stable and prosperous. A predictable region, operated by agreed rules, standards and laws. Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated. A region where sovereignty is respected, and all countries benefit from a strategic equilibrium.”
One is reminded of former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who described Wong’s alms-for-the-poor routine as, “running around the Pacific Islands with a lei around your neck handing out money”.
This could hardly count as foreign policy.
“It’s a consular task. Foreign policy is what you do with the great powers: what you do with China, what you do with the United States,” Keating said.
Much of Wong’s speech inhabits the realm of the speculative. She is delusionary in assuming that regional states will accept Australia’s observance of the Treaty of Rarotonga, whatever the stance taken by the AUKUS pact members. Otherwise known as the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, Wong revealed her ambivalence in observing its provisions.
She is on record as accepting the position that the US need not confirm whether nuclear-capable assets visiting Australia have nuclear weapons. She merely said that Washington “confirmed that the nuclear-powered submarines visiting Australia on rotation will be conventionally-armed”.
This hardly squares with the assessment of the Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs, which has confirmed that Australia will accept the deployment of nuclear weapons on its soil as long as they are not stationed.
The last word should be left to Keating. “Wong,” he observed, “went on to eschew ‘black and white’ binary choices but then proceeded to make a choice herself — extolling the virtues of the United States, of it remaining ‘the central power’ — of ‘balancing the region’, while disparaging China as ‘intent on being China’, going on to say ‘countries don’t want to live in a closed, hierarchical region, where rules are dictated by a single major power to suit its own interests’.
“Nothing too subtle about that.”
The Washington establishment will be delighted.
[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]