Comment

John Hewson
How Albanese is commanding the global stage

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s speech in Singapore last week deserves more attention. Not only was it his first major foreign policy statement on the global stage, it was a profound and nuanced expression of the challenges Australia faces in balancing diplomacy with its national interests and security in a reconfigured world order.

Albanese was the keynote speaker at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asia-Pacific’s top annual defence forum in Singapore. And, just as he has outperformed the expectations of both the opposition and their acolytes in the media on domestic policies – working with clear purpose to deal with Indigenous recognition, aged and child care, the budget and cost-of-living assistance in a non-inflationary way – his words showed he is more than up to the task of engaging with global leaders. His address was that of a statesman speaking honestly and directly about Australia’s national foreign and defence strategy at this very challenging time both economically and geopolitically.

Part of that context is Australia’s role as an intermediary in the increasingly fractious rivalry between the superpowers of the United States and China, at the same time as it is strengthening its military relationship with the former.

Albanese attempted to address China’s anger over the strategic alliances of AUKUS and the Quad – the US, Australia, India and Japan – echoing the phrase of Indonesian President Joko Widodo that they would work as “partners and not competitors”. His rationale for an upgrade in Australian military spending that will take the defence budget over the traditional 2 per cent of GDP was the intention to “be a stronger partner and a more effective contributor to stability in our region”. He added that “multilateral institutions are essential to writing the rules and keeping them relevant. But reinforcing the rules – and upholding them – depends on our capability as well.”

In announcing the AUKUS deal some months ago, Albanese made much of the extent to which he had gone to protect Australia’s sovereignty. However, I am afraid I don’t see this. I seriously doubt I will live long enough to see an Australian-built nuclear sub within the schedule specified, although I have little doubt that initially the government will lease, say, three Virginia-class subs from the US. My concern is the necessary training of Australia’s navy and ultimate command will most probably see it mostly under US directives within these time lines. Where is the sovereignty in all that?

That said, given the range of key themes Albanese sought to address, and their importance to our ongoing discussion about Australia’s role in the region and investment in defence, I am disappointed that his speech in Singapore hasn’t received more media and political attention. To some extent, it’s an understandable omission given the crush of news surrounding the Ben Roberts-Smith judgement – though I’d argue that some media outlets in the News Corp and Nine stables are unsurprisingly reluctant to give credit where it’s due to the prime minister. 

For those who missed it, Albanese’s words deserved to be absorbed, analysed and debated, and it’s worth revisiting more of his key points.

Albanese opened with an emphasis on the need for constructive dialogue between the superpowers – ironically, given that plans had fallen through for a meeting between their respective top defence officials on the sidelines of the event.

Drawing on Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent comment that “big powers have a heavy responsibility to maintain stable and workable relations with one another”, Albanese expressed strong support for renewed efforts by the Biden administration “to establish reliable and open channels of communication” between the US and China, “because the alternative, the silence of the diplomatic deep freeze, only breeds suspicion, only makes it easier for nations to attribute motive to misunderstanding, to assume the worst of one another.

“If you don’t have the pressure valve of dialogue, if you don’t have the capacity – at a decision-making level – to pick up the phone, to seek some clarity or provide some context, then there is always a much greater risk of assumptions spilling over into irretrievable action and reaction. The consequences of such a breakdown – whether in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere – would not be confined to the big powers or the site of their conflict, they would be devastating for the world. That’s why as leaders in this region – and as citizens of it – we should be doing everything we can to support the building of that first and most fundamental guardrail.”

This was perhaps the clearest demonstration of how the prime minister is rising above his critics, both in Parliament House and in the press, as he continues to outperform the expectations of those who have been wanting to see him fail. His predecessor, Scott Morrison, didn’t seem to care that neither he nor his ministers could pick up the phone to speak with their Chinese counterparts. Gone are the attempts by Morrison and the former Defence minister Peter Dutton to inflame Australia’s national conversations about foreign policy by channelling the nonsensical American-style rhetoric of the “China threat”.

Instead of working to strengthen ties with Pacific neighbours in Australia’s national interest, the Coalition government focused on scaremongering and sabre-rattling, with little regard for the significant deterioration in key trade relations with China. And in the lead-up to the 2022 election, Dutton doubled-down with statements on the need to prepare for war. It’s a strategy for which the Coalition paid a significant price in terms of seats lost in Victoria, NSW and Western Australia.

By contrast, last week Albanese emphasised the need for constructive engagement and dialogue as fundamental to relations with China. At the same time he pointed out that “we’re not naive about this process, or its limitations. We recognise there are fundamental differences in our two nations’ systems of government, our values and our world views. But we begin from the principle that whatever the issue, whether we agree or disagree, it is always better and always more effective if we deal direct.”

From this point, he segued to Australia’s strong national interest in preserving its trade relationship with China. This is no small point given the roughly $180 billion of exports Australia sends annually to the country – its primary two-way trading partner, accounting for a third of its global trade. Here he highlighted a mutually beneficial arrangement: it is also an acknowledgement of the nations’ common interests.

“We have advocated strongly for the removal of any impediments to our trade. Not just because Australian producers benefit from being able to export our high-quality products and resources to our largest trading partner. But because China, plainly, benefits from being able to import them. It is a win-win.”

And so it is, in some ways, as Australian exports to China recover from the setbacks of previous years, to reach a record high in March. The bulk of this of course is coal and iron ore. My main disappointment is that the prime minister didn’t then go on to encourage a co-ordinated Asian response to climate change and the shift to renewable energy.

Albanese also stressed the importance of multilateral institutions and acceptance of the rules-based order. Importantly, he cited that rules-based order as having been crucial to China’s success. While paying due respect to China’s achievements in becoming the world’s powerhouse economy and raising so many millions of people out of poverty – an “extraordinary economic transformation [that] has benefited not only its own population, it has benefited our entire region” – he observed that this economic miracle could not have been achieved in isolation: “Importantly, it is also due to our entire region. It’s been made possible by a regional architecture that facilitates fair trade, encourages the sharing of knowledge, spurs innovation and builds people-to-people connections through education and tourism and business and orderly migration.”

And in this vein Albanese made careful reference to respect for sovereignty in the context of the dispute over Taiwan, and the stability of the region as a whole. “The success and survival of the rules-based order depends on it both being fair – and being seen as fair … Upholding sovereignty, not just for the biggest powers or the loudest voices – but for every nation. Sovereignty that confers on every nation the right to determine its own destiny. To enjoy freedom of action and policy independence. The right to make our own choices, to speak for ourselves and our interests, free of external pressure or duress. To pursue opportunities for our people without fear of coercion or retribution. To have confidence in the integrity of our borders – including our maritime zones – and control of our own resources.

“If this breaks down, if one nation imagines itself too big for the rules, or too powerful to be held to the standards that the rest of us respect, then our region’s strategic stability is undermined and our individual national sovereignty is eroded,” the prime minister said.

This speech was carefully crafted to touch the key issues in defining Australia’s engagement in Asia and its reasonable expectations of others. To my mind, although never stated in these terms, our Asian neighbours have always looked to Australia as something of a countervailing force relative to the major powers and especially China, to be outspoken – to lead, even – on the issues that matter to us all, specifically economic integration and peacekeeping.

Albanese’s speech treads this narrow path most effectively. At last, I emphasise, Australia has an adult in the room in respect of the relationship with China.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "An adult on the global stage".

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