Australia’s regional policy shift lines up with the US focus on China
For those in Washington concerned about China expanding its influence into the Pacific Islands region, the policies pursued by the new Labor Party government in Australia should be a welcome development.
Since coming into power in late May, the government led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has made it clear that strong relations with Pacific Island nations form an integral part of its foreign policy. This emphasis on the region’s importance marks an important break from the policies of the former Liberal Party government.
What has also become clear is that the new leadership in Canberra does not intend to be nearly as hawkish toward China as its predecessor, which went so far at one point as to warn of a hot war with Beijing. The freeze in diplomatic contact between the two sides has ended, and high-ranking Australian officials have emphasized the importance of keeping the channels of communication open with Beijing.
Australia Labor Party government looks to restore traditional role in Pacific Islands
In the short time it has been office, the new Labor government has launched a diplomatic offensive in the Pacific Islands. Foreign Minister Penny Wong has travelled no fewer than four times to the region.
This regional focus comes against the backdrop of China’s own enhanced diplomacy with the Pacific Island nations. These efforts can be traced back to late 2014 when President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Fiji where he met with several regional leaders.
The latest and most notable development in China’s ties with the Pacific Islands was the security deal inked between China and the Solomon Islands in April. This agreement permits Chinese naval ships to carry out logistical operations in the Pacific Island nation “with the consent of” its government. It further stipulates that China may — also with the consent of the Solomons government — send troops to protect Chinese personnel and projects in the country. The Solomon Islands may also request Chinese armed forces to assist in various missions including but not limited to “maintaining social order.”
The agreement triggered concerns, particularly in Australia and the United States, about a future Chinese military base on the small island nation. Such fears may be warranted given that a similar agreement between China and the east African nation of Djibouti paved the way for Beijing to establish a military foothold in that country.
The new Labor government has prioritized its relationship with the Solomon Islands. Prime Minister Albanese’s first bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Pacific Islands forum in Fiji was with his Solomon Islands counterpart Manasseh Sogovare. Wong meanwhile had earlier made an official visit to the island nation.
These diplomatic efforts appear to have borne fruit, with he Solomons prime minister affirming following his meeting with Albanese that there would be no Chinese military in his country, and that Australia remained the preferred security partner.
A key to this apparent success in Australian diplomacy has been the emphasis placed by the new government on issues that are top priority for Pacific Islands nations, particularly climate change.
“In terms of policy differences (between Liberal and Labor) the climate side is really important,” according to Melissa Conley Tyler, Program Lead at Asia-Pacific 4D, a platform which focuses on Australia’s role in the Asia-Pacific region. “That is a genuine policy difference and one that really matters to Pacific leaders,” she told Responsible Statecraft, adding that the new government has sought to “capitalize on that difference to try and reset the relationship.”
The Australian government’s strategy of enhanced engagement with the Pacific Islands falls in line with Canberra’s more traditional approach of prioritizing its status in the region.
Australia has traditionally been the major partner for regional countries in fields like development and security. However, differences over issues such as climate change under Prime Minister Scott Morrison whose failure to take global warming seriously (despite catastrophic fires experienced by Australia during his tenure), contributed to his party’s defeat, strained these ties, with Pacific leaders who accused the Liberal government of indifference to what for them is an existential issue.
Canberra moves to ‘stabilize’ its relationship with Beijing
A meeting between Defense Minister Richard Marles and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in Singapore last month was the first ministerial level contact between the two countries in almost three years. The meeting took place on the sidelines of the annual Shangri La security summit and ended a diplomatic freeze that had been imposed by Beijing during the tenure of the former Liberal government.
In an interview with Bloomberg following the meeting, Marles stated unequivocally that Australia will not cross the red lines set by China regarding Taiwan: “We have a One China policy. We do not support Taiwanese independence,” he said. “We don’t support any unilateral action on either side of the Taiwan Strait, which would change the status quo.”
Such unequivocal reassurances fall in line with a strategy of stabilizing ties between Canberra and Beijing, given the importance the latter attaches to the issue of Taiwan.
The most significant development in bilateral ties under the Labor government came with last week’s meeting between Wong and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, during the G20 foreign ministers gathering in Bali.
After the meeting Wong described it as an initial step in “stabilising the relationship,” underscoring that such stabilization served the interests of both sides.
This China strategy marks a return to the traditional approach taken by Canberra which focused on maintaining a minimal level of stability with Beijing. A major factor in this approach has been trade relations, with China being Australia’s largest export partner by far.
Ties between Beijing and Canberra had reached a low point under the previous government when Morrison publicly defended calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
Implications for U.S. policy
The new government’s approach of strengthening Australia’s status in the Pacific Islands is seen as assisting the policy of the Biden administration.
In a sign of how seriously Washington is taking the apparent inroads Beijing has been making in the region, Vice President Kamala Harris declared just this week what amounts to a new era of U.S. engagement. Addressing the Fiji summit virtually, the U.S. vice president announced the appointment of a special envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum, in addition to the opening of new embassies in the island nations of Tonga and Kiribati.
Interestingly, Kiribati — along with the Solomon Island — proceeded to cut ties with Taiwan in 2019 and establish formal ties with China.
According to Allan Behm of the Australia Institute, Washington sees China’s rise as being detrimental to U.S interests in the Western Pacific. “I don’t think the Biden administration views China as an existential threat,” Behm told Responsible Statecraft. “It does, however, believe that China’s rise is a growing threat to U.S. power in the West Pacific.”
Harris’s remarks followed a visit to Fiji by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in February during which he promised to open a new embassy in the Solomons, as well as provide additional assistance to the Pacific Islands to combat climate change.
The Australian diplomatic offensive in the Pacific Islands also appears to be in lockstep with the Biden administration’s approach to the broader Indo-Pacific region. The administration’s strategy for the region released in February prioritizes building a network of alliances as a means to limit Chinese influence.
Albanese’s participation in the Quad summit in Tokyo just hours after taking office only serves to reinforce the notion that the Labor government is fully on board with Washington’s broader regional approach.