Opinion | In a dangerous tilt, Australia’s defence hawks are moving foreign policy away from diplomacy

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Australia has found a new best friend in Southeast Asia. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has embraced Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, calling their countries “great friends” and agreeing to upgrade ties to a strategic partnership.
But the intensification of defence cooperation between Australia and the Philippines – both staunch US military allies – sounds a discordant note in Canberra’s relationship with the region, especially after Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s efforts at peaceful diplomacy and economic outreach.
At the Asean Indo-Pacific Forum in Jakarta, Wong accompanied Albanese as he unveiled “Invested: Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040”, a blueprint for economic engagement detailing how Australia intended to increase its business and soft power in the region.
In it, Australia commits to spending at least A$95.4 million over four years. This hardly compares to the US$2.8 billion price tag for a Virginia-class submarine, which Australia is committed to buying up to five of, under the Aukus deal. But the blueprint was a statement of ambition, and full marks go to Wong for commissioning and driving it.

However, this arc of peaceful diplomacy was quickly undermined after Albanese landed in Manila. There was no mistaking the intent and purpose of the visit. Under the proclamations of friendship was an agenda fully endorsed by security hawks in Canberra, many aligned with America’s Indo-Pacific vision.

This was just two weeks after Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles observed joint military drills in Zambales, Philippines. Standing on a beach, Marles confirmed that joint maritime patrols in the heavily contested South China Sea would begin soon – reportedly in a matter of months.
Opinion | In a dangerous tilt, Australia’s defence hawks are moving foreign policy away from diplomacy - Informative Updates™
Albanese and Marcos Jnr pose for a photo after signing a memorandum of understanding for a strategic partnership at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on September 8. Photo: EPA-EFE

But it was Albanese who expanded the extent of cooperation with the Philippines, widely seen as a counter to China’s influence in the region. The coming joint naval patrols are viewed as resistance against China’s sweeping territorial claims. The leaders have also agreed to annual formal meetings between their defence ministers.

It was a disturbing example of the extent to which Australia was now prepared to do the bidding of the United States, or at least act in its interest and in its strategic direction.

So where does this leave Foreign Minister Wong and Moore, the special envoy for Southeast Asia?

It would seem that Marles has a greater influence on Albanese and this, coupled with his defence policy, is trumping attempts at diplomacy. The optics of the visits to the Philippines and its rapid elevation as Australia’s strategic partner has neatly undermined Wong’s genuine efforts to enhance consultation and cooperation in the region.

Australia’s partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Asean meetings host Indonesia, can only look on with dismay as Albanese and US President Joe Biden combine in a duet designed to increase militarisation in the region, even as they attempt to contain China with naval exercises that Beijing sees as provocative and belligerent. All of this runs counter to the urging of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said at the recent Asean-China summit that Asean hoped to see the US and China show leadership in working cooperatively in the region.
Opinion | In a dangerous tilt, Australia’s defence hawks are moving foreign policy away from diplomacy - Informative Updates™


Chinese, Australian foreign ministers meet in Beijing in sign of relationship thaw

Chinese, Australian foreign ministers meet in Beijing in sign of relationship thaw

If Wong’s diplomatic overtures were left dangling, it would further undermine Australia’s ability to build trust and play the honest broker in the region.

The strategic division between Marles and Wong go beyond any political infighting – it is no less than a battle for the strategic direction of Australia’s engagement with the region.

On one side is Australia’s commitment to Asean and its objectives of non-militarised solutions to the rise of China. In the other camp, hunkered behind an impressive array of weapons, is a militarised lens through which the exercise of foreign policy is viewed as an adjunct to military action.

Australia wants to court Southeast Asia, but its affections seem to be skin-deep

Albanese’s enthusiastic discovery of a strategic partner in the Philippines suggests that the military version of what foreign affairs is about, is firmly on the ascendant in Canberra. Wong is charming, intelligent and well-informed, but also increasingly an irrelevant player in Australia’s engagement with Asia.

Albanese’s flurry of visits to Asia was billed by Australian media as a six-day regional balancing act. Referring to the mixed diplomatic messages, an Australian official said: “Playing to just one side is the easy thing to do” but “you’ve got to do what you got to do”. Australia appears to be taking the easy way out by tipping the balance firmly towards military solutions.

Daryl Guppy is an international financial technical analysis expert and a former national board member of the Australia China Business Council. The views expressed here are his own

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