New government ponders China relationship. Penny Wong’s message to Pacific Islands. Labor signals a pivot to South-East Asia. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Albanese pledges climate action at Quad summit

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, at the Quad leaders summit at Kantei Palace, Tokyo, on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, at the Quad leaders summit at Kantei Palace, Tokyo, on Tuesday.
Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Albanese’s ‘like-minded friends’

Japan: Three hours and five minutes after being sworn in as prime minister, Anthony Albanese flew to Tokyo on Monday to meet with three of the world’s most powerful leaders.

His attendance at a summit of the Quad group – the United States, India, Japan and Australia – was, he noted, his first act as the nation’s 31st prime minister. After a six-week campaign filled with high-vis dress-ups and gotcha press conferences, he found himself swapping banter with US President Joe Biden and joining India’s Narendra Modi and Japan’s Fumio Kishida for handshakes and photo calls.

“We have had a change of government in Australia, but Australia’s commitment to the Quad has not changed,” he said in his address to the summit.

“We will continue to stand with you, our like-minded friends.”

Albanese said he will take stronger action on climate change but promised “continuity”. He has previously said that he supported the Coalition’s major foreign policy planks, including its unyielding approach to China and its commitment to AUKUS, a three-way security pact with the US and Britain.

The gathering was the fourth leaders’ summit of the Quad, a grouping of democracies that has quickly evolved to try to counter China’s growing clout in the region. Quad meetings rarely, if ever, mention China but instead commit to promoting – as Albanese put it – a “stronger and more resilient Indo-Pacific”. But Biden, possibly veering off script, was more candid, telling his counterparts: “That’s what this is about – democracies versus autocracies, and we have to make sure we deliver.”

During the summit, Russian and Chinese warplanes flew over the Sea of Japan – the first joint exercise between the two countries since Russia invaded Ukraine. Japan’s defence minister, Nobuo Kishi, said the exercise was an “unacceptable” provocation. China’s defence ministry said it was a “routine” patrol.

Handling China

On Monday, in his first press conference as prime minister, Anthony Albanese blamed China – not the Coalition – for the dire state of Canberra’s relations with Beijing, adding that he did not plan to adopt a more conciliatory approach. “It is China that has changed, not Australia,” he said.

Shortly afterwards, it emerged that China’s premier, Li Keqiang, had sent a congratulatory message to Albanese’s office – a sign that Beijing may be ready to end a two-year freeze of ministerial contact with Canberra. The letter said China was “ready to work with the Australian side to review the past, face the future”.

Albanese and his Foreign Affairs minister, Penny Wong, have backed the various measures that have infuriated Beijing in recent years, such as passing laws to curb foreign interference, condemning China’s conduct in the South China Sea, and banning Chinese firm Huawei from involvement in Australia’s broadband network. But the pair have criticised the inflammatory rhetoric from Coalition MPs, particularly Scott Morrison’s labelling of a Labor MP as a “Manchurian candidate” and former Defence minister Peter Dutton’s talk of Australia committing to a war over Taiwan.

As he ponders Beijing’s overtures, the immediate question for Albanese is whether he will demand that China’s trade sanctions end before relations can thaw.

Western Australia’s premier, Mark McGowan, whose state’s economy relies heavily on resources exports to China, this week urged Albanese to pursue a “reset”. “Having a good relationship with your biggest customer is kind of important,” he said.

Albanese said he welcomed the Chinese premier’s letter but indicated that he will respond cautiously. “The relationship with China will remain a difficult one,” he said.

Message to the Pacific

Penny Wong’s first act as Foreign Affairs minister was to record a video message aimed at Pacific Island leaders, in which she promised to improve ties and to “listen, because we care what the Pacific has to say”.

The message came as China’s influence across the region continues to grow. China recently signed a security deal with Solomon Islands, which Canberra fears could lead to the establishment of a Chinese military base in Australia’s northern maritime approaches. A US official told the Financial Times this week that China might be preparing to sign similar deals with other Pacific states, including Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu.

On Tuesday, China confirmed that the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, is about to embark on a 10-day trip to the Pacific, including visits to Solomon Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.

One of the Coalition’s signature foreign policies was its “Pacific step-up”, which boosted aid and engagement with the Pacific. The policy, including visits by former prime minister Scott Morrison to the region, was well received. But Pacific leaders, whose countries face calamity from rising sea levels, remained infuriated by the Coalition’s refusal to adopt more ambitious climate targets.

Wong is hoping that Labor’s climate policy, combined with further high-level visits to the region, will help to boost ties and persuade Pacific leaders to resist Chinese overtures. On Thursday, she flew to Fiji, less than 24 hours after returning from Tokyo.

“We have heard the Pacific and we will act – standing shoulder to shoulder with the Pacific as we address the climate crisis,” she said in her video message.

China’s deepening ties in the Pacific reflect its expanding commercial links. Australia’s ability to respond may be limited. Still, several senior Pacific figures this week indicated that Australia’s new climate commitments will help.

Fiji’s prime minister Frank Bainimarama said in a tweet after Albanese’s election win: “Of your many promises to support the Pacific, none is more welcome than your plan to put the climate first.”

Pivot to South-East Asia

Despite supporting much of the Morrison government’s foreign policy, Labor has signalled that one of its main points of difference will be a stronger focus on South-East Asia.

Anthony Albanese plans to appoint a special envoy for the region, boost aid, and improve business ties. He has also promised that Indonesia will be the first country that he visits after the Quad meeting. But he has not yet committed to visits elsewhere in the region. No Australian prime minister has made a bilateral visit to Thailand or the Philippines since John Howard in 1998 and 2003, respectively.

Before the election, Penny Wong accused the Coalition of neglecting South-East Asia, a region that is at the centre of the increasing competition between the US and China. South-East Asian countries are directly affected by China’s growing assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea. But these nations also have strong trade ties with China, and have traditionally tended to tread warily and oppose any moves that may add to great power rivalries.

Evan Laksmana, from the National University of Singapore, said this week that the challenge for Australia will be to pursue closer ties with its immediate neighbours despite their different outlooks towards China.

“The issue is whether US–China competition will, from time to time, be more of a priority compared to the relationship with Indonesia,” he told The South China Morning Post. “This is the balance Australia hasn’t really quite figured out.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Albanese pledges climate action at Quad summit".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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