Penny Wong and Medcalf: Critical Comments on Australia’s Asia Policy

Andrew Tillett, in Financial Review, 3 March 2020, where the title runs “ Climate, coronavirus raises risk of ‘armed mistrust’ between China, US”

The risk of “armed mistrust” between China and the US is rising, with climate change and coronavirus two key areas where co-operation is sorely lacking, according to Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong. Senator Wong also criticised the government’s cuts to foreign aid in south-east Asia at a time when she said Australia needed to be strengthening its regional influence.

Penny Wong will say that for Australia to realise the region it wants demands multipolarity, not binary competition between the US and China. Alex Ellinghausen

Senator Wong will make the comments in a speech to launch strategic policy expert Rory Medcalf’s new book on the Indo-Pacific. In a show of regard for Professor Medcalf’s work, Foreign Minister Marise Payne will also attend the launch on Tuesday evening.

Professor Medcalf, the head of Australian National University’s National Security College, challenges the narrative that China’s regional dominance is inevitable. He argues that the collection of middle power nations – Australia, Japan, India and Indonesia – can collectively form an Indo-Pacific counterweight.

Senator Wong will say that for Australia to realise the region it wants demands multipolarity, not binary competition between the US and China. “The risk of ‘armed mistrust’ between the world’s two largest economies is becoming too prevalent,” she will say according to speech notes. Competition in certain sectors is outweighing co-operation and there is a rising risk of confrontation – by mistake or by design.”

“Among these elevated risks is climate change, encapsulated by the author as ‘the potent interplay between vulnerable populations, rival nations and extreme weather events’. And not to mention the more impending risk of a global pandemic and the stress this will cause the international health system, particularly in developing countries.

“The consequential imperative for our government is to work to elevate co-operation and mechanisms to lessen the risk of escalation. Whether this is through diplomatic architecture, confidence-building measures for practical risk reduction, working to build greater predictability and transparency to lessen the likelihood of confrontation, or generating co-operation around shared interests, we need to tilt the balance away from competition and confrontation.”

Senator Wong says building partnerships demands a comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy that is resourced to demonstrate Australia’s consistency in the region and ensure that outcomes are not only determined by power. “This task hasn’t been helped by the government’s step-down of our assistance to south-east Asia,” she says.

Senator Wong welcomes Professor Medcalf’s call that Opposition politicians receive regular briefings on China by security agencies. Professor Medcalf labels the denial of such briefings as shortsighted.

India’s potential

We need to get beyond zero-sum false binaries which posit security against economics,” she says. “And I would add that we need less domestic politics and greater bipartisanship. By bipartisanship I mean less an absence of disagreement and rather more shared purpose and deeper engagement across the Parliament and between the parties of government.”

Australian Institute of International Affairs president Allan Gyngell praised Professor Medcalf’s contribution to the foreign policy debate. Professor Gyngell, though, said he was more sceptical about India’s potential to be a regional counterweight to China. “I think India is going to act much more in its own interest. You can see that with India failing to sign  onto the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement,” he said.


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