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Security and Foreign Policy Priorities of Australia’s New Labor Party Government

Col R.P. Singh is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 15, 2022

    Anthony Albanese won the closely contested general election in Australia in May 2022, marking the return of the Labor Party to power after nine years. Though the election campaign revealed minimal differences in foreign policy positions between the two major parties, it is expected that the change in foreign and security policies is likely to be in the process rather than on substance. Experts believe that there will be a stronger emphasis on bolstering close relationships with regional partners.

    Albanese’s first overseas visit was the Quad Leaders’ Meeting at Tokyo on 24 May 2022.1 Before the Quad Summit meet in Tokyo, Albanese stated that the "Quad leaders' meeting is an absolute priority for Australia, there will be some changes in policy, particularly in regard to climate change and our engagement with the world."2

    During his address at the Lowy Institute on 10 March 2022, Albanese enunciated three key principles for national security policy.3 These included:

    defending Australia’s territorial integrity, protecting nation’s political sovereignty from external pressure, and promoting Australia’s economic prosperity and social stability, with sustainable growth, secure employment, and a unified community.4

    He further articulated that the Labor Government will achieve these objectives and build a more secure and resilient Australia by supporting a stronger Australian Defence Force, prioritise better and smarter cybersecurity, shore-up economic self-reliance, strengthen institutions, deepen partnerships in the region and globally, and take action on climate change.

    Australia’s foreign policy is reasonably bipartisan and it has remained apolitical, which helps the relationships with partners in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Albanese has consistently stated in the run up to the elections that his government’s aim will be to “deepen” defence cooperation with close partners like Japan, India, Singapore as well as “bolster our joint capabilities, shape our strategic environment and uphold the rules of the road”.5

    On China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, the Labor government has traditionally taken a more nuanced approach. While speaking to The Guardian Australia, Albanese admitted that relations with China "will continue to be difficult".6   Albanese also affirmed that Canberra will continue to stand up for its values and interests, against any aggressive behaviour by China in the region against Australian interests. Albanese further added that he supported the Biden administration's perspective on China—‘competition without catastrophe’—and called for “more considered responses to China's more aggressive positioning in the region than just ramping up rhetoric”.7   Whether Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong will be less forceful than the previous government in dealing with China’s assertiveness and expansionist activities remains to be seen.

    Australian diplomacy and tug of war with China was on display in South Pacific in the recent weeks, after China signed a security deal with Solomon Islands and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited eight Pacific countries in May–June 2022. As Australia is changing its relationship with Pacific nations to a more cooperative one, Wong asserted that Australia would ‘listen (to Pacific Family) because we care what the Pacific has to say’.8

    During Wang’s visit, the China–Pacific Island Countries Common Development Vision was proposed by China, which caused deep concern among some of the island nations as well as in Canberra and Washington DC, pushing Penny Wong to make two quick trips to the Pacific. Wang Yi had hoped to ink the ambitious deal with 10 South Pacific nations covering cooperation in areas ranging from security aspects to fisheries. Consensus on that deal was elusive but Wang was able to sign bilateral agreements with many of the countries he visited. Concomitantly, Wong met Pacific leaders in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and conveyed that Australia respected the right of sovereign nations to make their own security decisions, but added that those decisions "have the potential to affect the nature of the security arrangements of the region”.9

    Australia’s bilateral relationship with the US, its only treaty-ally in the Indo-Pacific, is likely to continue growing deeper and broader. When the Morrison government announced AUKUS in September 2021, the Labor Party supported the decision. Moreover, Labor Party has maintained that to defend Australia and deter its potential aggressors, the government needs to quickly increase Australia’s strike capabilities. While addressing Lowy Institute, Albanese pointed out that there were some contradictions between the 10-year time-frame as indicated in the 2020 Strategic Update to examine issues of national security and other policy statements that look towards building future defence capabilities.10 Albanese has also talked about the need to address the submarine capability gap in the period until the nuclear-powered submarines are delivered. 

    The Quad Summit meeting in Tokyo presented an opportunity for Albanese to meet Joe Biden and to reiterate Australia's commitment to the AUKUS security pact with the United States and the United Kingdom, under which Canberra aspires to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and other high-end defence technologies. The new government observes that given the present challenges and geostrategic environment in the Indo-Pacific, a credible deterrent capability is vital to maintain peace and security in the region. Labor Party has also underscored the need to resource Australian Defence to defend Australia and deter potential aggressors.

    At the Lowy Institute address, Albanese observed,

    We will consider whether tomahawk missiles can be fitted to the Collins Class submarines. We will review progress of the Frigates project, and explore whether our naval power could be bolstered through upgraded weapons on the Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels or through additional Hobart Class Air Warfare Destroyers.11

    The new Australian government has renewed its focus on Southeast Asia, looking at a broader engagement in the region, rather than the earlier focus on the US–China competition. Southeast Asia has been the pivot of Australian diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific, as was demonstrated by Albanese and Wong during their first visit to Indonesia, a major economic and strategic partner, on 6–7 June 2022.12 Albanese is trying to create a new constructive environment in its relationship with Indonesia, and Southeast Asia, as against merely condemning Chinese coercion and expansionist activities in the South China Sea.

    As for climate change issues, the Labor government has highlighted the need for firm obligation that Australia will reduce its own carbon footprint in line with the Glasgow Climate Pact 2021 and Paris Accord 2015. Albanese and Wong will look at implementing Labor Party’s promise for a climate infrastructure partnership and recently announced plans to boost development assistance and labour mobility. Under the Labor government, Australia intends to co-host a future global climate summit with Pacific partners. This will address Australia’s security concerns in the region, as also ensure dialogue with Pacific leaders to meet their development requirements. At the Lowy Institute address, Albanese stated that climate change was the “number one issue that Pacific nations are concerned about”. At the Quad Leaders’ Summit also, Albanese articulated climate change as one of the biggest security threats facing the Indo-Pacific.13

    The Labor government is likely to broaden trade diversification with a focus on new markets for exports, as also work with businesses to build domestic economic capacities, as part of the Future Made in Australia plan, so that Australia will be “less vulnerable to economic coercion and global shocks…”.14 In addition, Labor Party’s shadow government had released Defence Industry Development Plan which looks at sustenance of defence supply chains, development of self-reliant defence industry and encouraging innovation in both defence and wider industry. Labor Party’s plan for a National Strategic Fleet of Australian-flagged vessels reinforces security of supply for critical resources.

    Australia has joined the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which goes beyond the original Quad intent and includes many other Asian and Pacific nations. Canberra supported IPEF and Quad initiatives for larger functional aspects of economic connectivity, supply chain resilience, clean energy initiatives and standards based on just economy. The resilient supply chain initiatives are an effort to protect the region from disruptions and inflationary pressures, as was seen during the pandemic and Russia–Ukraine conflict.

    With the new government in Australia, India will look to bolster and broaden the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership as well as have renewed focus on economic and technological cooperation. There are enormous opportunities for growth in cooperation at multilateral bodies, namely Quad and G20, East Asia Summit, among others. Broader synergy between the two nations is expected to continue in maritime security issues as also in non-traditional security matters, namely, energy security, climate change and foreign policy objectives. Analysts will also closely watch India’s bilateral relationship with Labor government on issues of differences, in particular, Russia–Ukraine conflict and developments in Myanmar and Afghanistan.

    In conclusion, the Labor government in Australia is likely to strengthen and deepen its strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region by leveraging AUKUS and Quad frameworks. Defence and strategic issues, particularly those against China, may get a re-look. Moreover, the government can be expected to look at Australia’s security and economic engagement in the Pacific and Southeast Asia with new vision and energy, and may take significant and concrete actions to maintain its regional sphere of influence.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.