New Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have already moved to address China's rising influence in the Pacific. Image: Screengrab / ABC

The outspoken Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad once dared Australia to decide “whether it’s an Asian country or a Western country.” By all indications, the new Labor government in Canberra seems to want it both ways. 

Newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has underscored that while his government welcomes de-escalation of bilateral tensions with Beijing, it remains committed to expanding strategic ties with fellow Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners.

Attending the Quad Summit in Tokyo last month, just days after winning the parliamentary elections, the new Australian leader vowed to pursue foreign policy focused on “friendships and long-time alliances.”

While remaining a staunch US ally, Australia’s new government has also made it clear that it is not just “America’s deputy sheriff” in the region, but instead is determined to establish robust ties with near neighbors in Southeast Asia and beyond on its own terms. In recent weeks, Australia’s newly minted Defense Minister Richard Marles and new Foreign Minister Penny Wong have been on a charm offensive across Southeast Asia. 

Born in Malaysia, the Malay-speaking Australian chief diplomat joined Albanese during his visit to Indonesia this month. A heartfelt remark by Wong, delivered in flawless Indonesian, went viral online, while locals swarmed her during her visit to communities that have received Australian development aid in recent years. 

During the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, another critical regional state, Defense Minister Marles, who is also deputy PM, advocated for stronger defense ties with Southeast Asian states while calling on China to be more “transparent” with its massive military buildup.

He also became the first Australian defense chief to meet with a Chinese counterpart, in this case Wei Fenghe, on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, potentially paving the way for reestablishment of frayed communication channels.  

Mending ties

In the meantime, the Albanese administration is singularly focused on revitalizing strategic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while managing structural tensions with China amid an ongoing geopolitical scramble across the Indo-Pacific region. 

As an English-speaking, white-majority nation, Australia has had historically strained relations with many of its Asian neighbors. Its decades-long racist immigration doctrine, the so-called “White Australia” policy under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Asians.

As a Commonwealth nation and US treaty ally, Australia also played a pivotal role in subverting nationalist movements in Southeast Asia. 

Its military intervention in East Timor embittered relations with Indonesia, while its support for US military interventions in the Middle East provoked outrage in Muslim-majority nations of Southeast Asia.

At times, Southeast Asian leaders such as Mahathir got into verbal spats with their Australian counterparts, with then-prime minister Paul Keating once memorably describing his Malaysian counterpart as “recalcitrant.” 

Australia’s relations with its Asian neighbors, particularly China and those in Southeast Asia, experienced a major transformation under Mandarin-speaking prime minister Kevin Rudd. He consciously presented Australia as an autonomous force that was committed to establishing an “Asia-Pacific community.” 

Eager to end Australia’s moniker as America’s “deputy sheriff,” and pursue robust economic ties with China, the Rudd administration openly rejected his country’s involvement in the Quad by arguing that “Australia would run the risk of being left high and dry as a result of future foreign-policy departures in Tokyo or Delhi.”

His fiercely independent stance sabotaged the Quad in its early years, just as the US and Japan actively courted Australia and India to be part of a broader anti-China alliance. 

Rudd’s policies proved so consequential that even successors from rival parties largely adopted his Asia policy. This was particularly the case under prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who welcomed “strong and constructive ties with China,” while presenting Australia as an autonomous strategic partner to Southeast Asia. 

In his keynote speech at the 2017 the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Turnbull in effect warned of a “brave new world” where smaller powers “cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests,” but instead should “take responsibility for our own security and prosperity.” 

True to his words, Turnbull hosted the inaugural Australia-ASEAN Summit in Sydney the following year, as both sides vowed to enhance strategic cooperation in the face of festering US-China rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. At one point, the two sides even discussed Australia’s potential “associate” membership in the Southeast Asian body.

Morrison turnaround

Scott Morrison’s administration, however, largely dispensed with his predecessor’s Asia policy in favor of fortifying Australia’s defense ties with not only the Quad, but also the AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) alliance in the Indo-Pacific region – which received mixed, and often even negative, reception in Southeast Asia.

Matters took a more troubling turn when the conservative government in Australia adopted regressive policies on climate change, along with an increasingly confrontational policy toward China. All of a sudden, Australia once again resembled “America’s deputy sheriff” in the eyes of many Southeast Asian states.

The Albanese government, however, seems committed to recalibrating Australia’s foreign policy.

On one hand, the new prime minister has signaled continuity in Australia’s Quad policy by emphasizing how “I acknowledge all that the Quad has achieved” and declaring that his government is committed to “standing together for a free, open and resilient Indo-Pacific region and working together to tackle the biggest challenges of our time, including climate change and the security of our region.” 

The new government says it is also intent on maximizing the potential of the AUKUS defense agreement with traditional allies. On her part, Wong also clarified earlier during the election campaign that Australia had “actually already chosen” a side by maintaining robust defense ties with the US, which enjoyed “deep bipartisan support.”

Nevertheless, the new government has shown openness to de-escalating tensions with Beijing.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in his congratulatory letter to the new Australian leadership, started things off by calling for “sound and steady growth” of their “comprehensive strategic partnership” following years of acrimonious relations manifested by the ongoing geopolitical scramble across the South Pacific and growing restrictions on Chinese investments in Australia. 

Marles, while criticizing China’s military buildup and maritime assertiveness, welcomed enhanced dialogue with Beijing, especially after a brief exchange with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue. 

Aussie-ASEAN ties

While Australia’s fraught relations with China are unlikely to transform any time soon, the potential for stronger Australia-ASEAN cooperation in the near future is tremendous. 

“We want to revitalize our relationship with Southeast Asia as well,” Marles said in an interview with Al Jazeera on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue. “ASEAN is completely central to Australia’s security interests and our economic interests, and you’ll see a focus on this region.”

Marles also spoke of the importance of “freedom of navigation within the South China Sea, and that includes freedom of airspace, where people have the right to engage under international law, which is what Australia is doing.” He emphasized Australia’s commitment to upholding regional security despite growing military tensions with China. 

Southeast Asian nations, which lament rising tensions among major powers, have largely welcomed the new strategic tone from Canberra. They also welcome more direct strategic engagement and cooperation with Australia beyond inherently fraught geopolitical issues. 

Bilateral trade and investment ties are substantial. Two-way trade between Australia and Southeast Asia has exceeded US$100 billion in recent years, while bilateral investment was as large as $259 billion in the pre-pandemic years. Australia has also hosted as many as 100,000 students from the region in recent years. 

A major thrust of Australia’s regional policy will likely be developmental cooperation, including in the realm of climate change and green infrastructure development. In fact, Australia’s new climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, is also a fluent Malay speaker, underscoring the potential for warm and mutually respectful relations between Canberra and key Southeast Asian countries.  

In a minute-long video clip released this month, Wong singled out relations with Indonesia as “one of our most important” in a clear signal of new strategic priorities under the new Australian government. She emphasized how “Prime Minister Albanese and I look forward to meeting with our [Southeast Asian] partners to strengthen the relationship between our two countries.” 

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter @richeydarian