Can Penny Wong stop us from going to war?
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
Penny Wong has assumed the role of Foreign Affairs Minister at a crucial moment in Australian history.
For years China has risen, but now it's beginning to challenge the dominance of the United States in the pacific.
World leaders and military planners are openly weighing up the risk that the two superpowers could stumble into a war.
And it’s at this moment that the foreign affairs of Australia rest on Penny Wong’s shoulders.
Today, Contributor to The Monthly, Hugh White, on how Penny Wong is approaching the challenge.
It’s Tuesday, April 11.
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So Hugh, Penny Wong has become Australia's foreign minister at a critical time for the country. She's faced with the challenge of trying to manoeuvre Australia's interests at a time when tensions between the U.S. and China are escalating. What do you think the biggest difficulty is for her?
Look, I do think it's fair to say that Penny Wong faces some of the most difficult challenges in shaping Australia's foreign policy today. As difficult as any that have been faced by any Australian foreign minister. Now, that sounds like a very big claim, but we are seeing in China's challenge to America's leading position in Asia, in America's response to that challenge, we're seeing, as Penny Wong herself has often said, strategic situation in Asia which is more difficult and more dangerous than anything we've seen since 1945, or even since 1939, which is an even scarier way of putting it.
So I do think she does face enormous challenges in trying to navigate Australia through this very difficult tension between our biggest trading partner and the most powerful country in Asia, on the one hand, and our traditional ally on the other.
Now, I think she brings to that some very important assets. She is, of course, a remarkable politician in her manner, if I can put it that way. The way she speaks, the way she addresses issues, she has a kind of a calmness, she's highly articulate, she's very measured; all of these are very obvious credentials for a good foreign minister.
But she also brings more than that. She does bring the product of six years as opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, during which she worked, I think really hard, to try and understand the key issues that Australia faced and develop ideas about how we should respond to them.
Well, let's talk a bit more about that, because as you say, Penny Wong, she was the foreign affairs spokesperson for six years. So what do we know about her position from those days, where she presumably was able to speak a bit more freely?
Yeah, sure. So she put forward in a series of very well considered, very sort of deeply argued speeches: an approach to the US-China strategic rivalry, an approach to how Australia should try to position itself in relation to America and China. A vision of the future Asian order.
Archival tape – Penny Wong:
“We live in a time characterised by disruption, power is shifting and the global order we have known and relied upon since World War II is being transformed.”
You know, the key point she made was that, first of all, the big underlying dynamics had really changed because of China's growth. She made it quite clear that she understood that China was a much, much more powerful country today than it had ever been before, and that its economy was rivalling — and destined to overtake — the United States to become the biggest economy in the world. And she understood that that had not just immense economic significance but also immense strategic significance.
Archival tape – Penny Wong:
“We have a changing China, both in terms of how China perceives itself and operates, but also its projection into the region, its assertiveness. We have a changing relationship and that the economic and strategic bifurcation of the past I don’t think is helpful.”
She understood that that meant that we couldn't expect America to remain the dominant power in East Asia the way it had been, you know, really ever since the beginning of the 20th century, in the face of China's new power.
Archival tape – Penny Wong:
“China’s perception of itself, and its views, and its assertiveness about its role in the world differs now from 20 years ago. And that is something that we will need to navigate.”
And she understood that that meant that if Australia — and the region as a whole — was to see a new order in Asia, which accommodated China's growing power, but also maintained a strong role for the United States, and had a respectable position for other countries in the region, including Australia, that meant we were going to have to have a multipolar order in Asia. We could no longer afford to expect to have an Asia which was dominated by the United States as it used to be. And she set that out very clearly. She said that we shouldn't see this… shouldn't see Australia's position as having to make a choice between an Asia dominated by America or an Asia dominated by China. We should be looking for a new vision of Asia's future, which was neither of those things.
Archival tape – Penny Wong:
“We need to deal with the relationship in all of its complexity as a whole. And that is a difficult task because I don’t think to date we have managed that as well as we will need to.”
The challenge that poses to Australia today, and to her today, is the policy that the Albanese Government inherited from their Coalition predecessors, and which it appears very strongly committed to sustaining, is a policy which does presuppose that we simply support America, that we take America's side against China. And I think that's a bad approach to take, much worse approach than the one that Penny Wong herself advocated in opposition, because I don't think it's going to work.
Yeah so, Penny Wong has inherited the AUKUS deal. It was signed after she made those comments. So how do you think that Wong is approaching AUKUS? Has her language changed since coming into power, and do you think that she does still believe in a more balanced solution to foreign policy?
Well, that's a bit hard to say because when we contrast the kinds of arguments she was putting forward so articulately in opposition on the one hand, and the kind of policies that she has argued for as a member of the Albanese Government since coming into power last year on the other, we do see a very sharp contrast.
You know, the Albanese Government has been absolutely unambiguous that it is following the policy lines laid down by the Coalition predecessors. They are clearly committed to supporting the United States 100% in its contest with China. And that's been, of course, very strongly emphasised by the AUKUS deal. The AUKUS deal is not just about submarines as Albanese himself keeps on saying, it really is more deeply a statement of Australia's 100% alignment with the United States, as the United States attempts to push back and contain China in this new Cold War in Asia. And Penny Wong has argued for that very strongly. At the same time, we do see hints in some of the things she said since taking office, that she understands the uncertainties around that. In a big speech she gave in Washington in December last year, for example, she did talk about how serious the risk of war between the US and China has become.
Archival tape – Penny Wong:
“Today's circumstances have prompted various comparisons with 1914, the 1930s and 1962. But we are not hostages to history.”
She's described that war as catastrophic, which I think is a significant word for her to use. She's recognised that the US and China need to establish, what Joe Biden has called, guardrails to help prevent a slide into war. But she's also recognised and described the difficulties that Americans are going to have in establishing those guardrails, as well as the problems from China's side.
Archival tape – Penny Wong:
“Because the kind of leadership, the kind of international leadership we need to prevent catastrophe. Must be supported, and must be encouraged across the political systems of both China and America.”
So she clearly understands the difficulties we face. But she's not prepared, as far as I can see, to argue for the kind of positions, now she's in government, that she argued for so effectively before she took office when she was in opposition.
So Wong has described the potential of a U.S.-China war as “catastrophic” for Australia. But what about on the question of what Australia would actually do in that situation?
Well, she simply refuses to be drawn on that question. She rejects it as being hypothetical. She says I'm not going to address hypothetical questions. Now that's an old politician's device for avoiding answering questions they don't want to answer. And sometimes it's the right response to make, because some questions really are hypothetical. But I don't think the question of a US-China war over Taiwan is hypothetical. I don't think the question as to whether Australia would join such a war is hypothetical. It is a very clear and present danger. It's a real possibility, and it's one that the government itself must be very seriously considering.
Both sides, both in Washington, and in Beijing, have been using increasingly bellicose language about Taiwan. Both sides are pushing the envelope of the old status quo, which is ‘preserve the peace across the Taiwan Strait’ for so long. America has taken steps, for example, Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last year and Tsia Ing-wen’s visit to the United States going on right now, taking steps which clearly push the boundaries of America's side of the one-China policy, the Chinese, in response to those things, have used unprecedented levels of military action to demonstrate their displeasure.
And very senior American officers and officials have predicted the possibility of a war with China over Taiwan within the next three years, as soon as that.
And it's a question that I think the Government must start to have a conversation with the Australian people about, the idea that if a war breaks out between America and China, and Australia is asked by America to join it, as we certainly would be, that the government would only then start to think about it, or only then start to have a conversation with the Australian people about it, I think is really crazy, is unacceptable. This would be one of the most important decisions any Australian government has ever made, because a war with China over Taiwan would not be like Iraq or Afghanistan. It would be like World War II. It would in fact be World War III, quite probably be a nuclear war. And the idea that Australia will be drawn into that without any serious analysis or discussion about what's at stake for Australia in that conflict, and what it might cost, and what its probable outcome would be, seem to me to be simply crazy.
We’ll be back after this.
Hugh, as you say, Labor's decision to recommit to the AUKUS alliance, it's really an extension of what came before of Coalition policy. It was the Coalition who set the AUKUS deal in motion, but it's Labor that's carrying it into the current moment. So why is this Labor Government doing that? What sense do you get when you speak to key Labor figures behind the scenes about the reasons?
Look, I think there are three factors at work here. The first is a political one. That is, I do think the Labor Party has a kind of instinctive dread of ever allowing any daylight to appear between Labor policy and Coalition policy on any issue relating to national security. Because they do feel that national security is a natural area of advantage to the Coalition, and that they'll be very severely criticised by the Coalition if they are seen to be soft on national security. And they lack the courage or confidence, you might say, in their capacity to argue a contrary view.
The second point though, is a point of conviction. I do think a lot of people on the Labor side genuinely believe that Australia's only choice, as we confront the escalating rivalry between America and China, is to side with the Americans, because that's what we've always done. The idea that what Australia does when it thinks about these issues is to pick a side. Is very deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche and I think that's as true on the Labor side as it is on the Coalition side. And I might say I think it's particularly true of the present generation of Labor figures and Labor leaders, because this generation have grown up with the Vietnam War as a distant memory, even with the Cold War as a distant memory. So all the ideas that were so important to Labor in the 60s and 70s and into the 80s - about trying to establish the maximum freedom of manoeuvre for Australia in relation to the United States in Asia - all of that I think is lost on the present generation. And the idea that what we do is follow the United States wherever the United States leads is now as widely accepted in many parts of the Labor Party as it is on the Coalition side.
And I think the third factor is that Labor hasn't actually developed much expertise in these areas. If you look at a whole lot of areas of public policy, you know, climate change obviously, but a lot of social policy issues and so on, a lot of issues to do with the Voice and so on, the Labor Party comes to the debate with very deep reservoirs of policy expertise. But on foreign affairs and defence policy, there hasn't been much interest in the Labor Party on these issues. Apart from Penny Wong herself, very few people in the present Labor Cabinet, for example, have any depth of expertise or familiarity with these questions, which makes it very tempting for them to just go along with where their predecessors led.
And so do you get the sense then that there are any discrepancies between what Penny Wong might be advocating for privately on foreign policy within cabinet versus what makes its way into public statements at the moment? Because it seems like, from what you're saying, that at least in the past Wong has seen the US China question in different terms to others in her party.
Yes. Look, she clearly has seen the US-China issue in different terms and the key question is to what extent is she pushing within the government, within the cabinet, to take a different view? I would say that the most we've seen publicly of that is hints that she is uncomfortable with some of the directions that the government is taking. For example, when she describes the US-China conflict over Taiwan as catastrophic. She's giving a pretty clear hint that she thinks it would be a really dumb idea for Australia to get involved. And yet the AUKUS deal on submarines very clearly presupposes that Australia would support the United States in a war with China over Taiwan, because otherwise the Americans wouldn't dream of giving us the submarines or selling us the submarines that they're committed to do under that deal.
Whether Wong is privately inside the Government arguing for a significantly different policy approach from the one we see being articulated, I don't know. I haven't seen any clear and distinct evidence of that. And in the absence of such evidence, I rather fear she isn't. I think the judgement I'd make over all of that, she's she's not taking on the debate that I think she's going to need to take on if she's going to help to shape the government's policy in a more positive direction.
That's interesting, because it seems like for Penny Wong this role is as foreign minister, it's a role that she's spent her professional life working towards, and the way in which she does handle a critical moment like this one, if tensions over Taiwan do escalate into outright war, that would no doubt become her legacy. So how important is it for her to get this right?
I think history will Judge Penny Wong on how well she handles this issue, because it is one of the most important issues, foreign policy issues, that Australia has ever faced. And I guess when you look at the way she is responding so far and ask yourself, “why isn't she doing more?”, “Why isn't she pushing harder to promote the arguments that she promoted in opposition?” I suspect that partly because as a political fight this would be really hard. I think the Labor Party is very committed to following the Opposition's lead on these big questions. In order to change direction, they'd need to undertake a really fundamental conversation with the Australian people about where we're heading in the region, what China's rise means, what kind of ally we can expect the United States to be in the decades ahead. And that is a hard thing to do, particularly for political leaders like Anthony Albanese, who don't have much expertise or much comfort in this area. So I think she probably realises that it would be a very hard ask to persuade her colleagues in government to take a different approach. I fear that's the approach she's taking. If it is, I think it's a bad approach to take, because this is a problem that we've been kicking down the road for a long time now.
It's been clear for well over a decade that the US and China are being drawn into an escalating Cold War over which of them will be the dominant power in our part of the world. And we desperately need to find a really constructive, energetic, effective approach to positioning ourselves better in this fundamental reorientation of the regional order. Penny Wong herself says that we shouldn't just stand around and be bystanders as the region changes fundamentally around us, and yet that's what we're condemning ourselves to do.
Hugh, Thank you so much for your time.
You can read Hugh White’s Essay ‘Penny Wong’s Next Big Fight’ in the latest issue of The Monthly.
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Also in the news today…
Over the weekend, China conducted a massive training exercise of an attack on Taiwan.
The government in Taiwan claimed 71 Chinese aircraft entered its air defence zone, with Chinese state media confirming a simulated attack was being conducted.
The exercises are widely seen as a response to the Taiwanese president’s official trip to the United States last week, something the Chinese government view as threatening the US’s agreement to only officially recognise the government in Beijing.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has claimed the government has doubled the rate of approvals for renewable energy projects.
In an interview with the ABC she announced that her office had approved 11 renewable energy projects in the 10 months, and that during the comparison period, under the previous government, it had only approved five.
I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am, see you tomorrow.
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Penny Wong has assumed the role of foreign affairs minister at a crucial time in Australian history.
For years, China has been on the rise, but now it’s beginning to challenge the United States’ dominance in the Pacific.
World leaders and military planners are openly weighing the risk the two superpowers could stumble into war.
How does Australia navigate a path to peace? That question now rests on Penny Wong’s shoulders.
Today, contributor to The Monthly and Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at ANU Hugh White on how Wong is approaching the challenge.
Guest: Contributor to The Monthly and Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at ANU, Hugh White
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.
It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Zoltan Fecso and Cheyne Anderson.
Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Scott Mitchell.
Sarah McVeigh is our head of audio. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Mixing by Laura Hancock and Andy Elston.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
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