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  • John McDonnell

Division over China widens in Australia

The shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, has accused the government of “amping up” the prospect of conflict over Taiwan in order to promote a khaki election.

In a speech to the National Security College on Tuesday, Senator Wong told an ANU audience that:

"Amping up the prospect of war against a superpower is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history."
"A tactic employed by irresponsible politicians who are desperate to hang on to power at any cost."

This seems like over-reach. The comment is aimed at defence minister, Peter Dutton, who a month ago said that it was “inconceivable” that Australia would not go to the assistance of the United States in the event of a war over Taiwan.

Dutton did not say that Australia would provide ‘boots on the ground’ and it is unlikely we would be asked to, but we would be asked to provide communications support from Pine Gap and Exmouth. It is unlikely that any Australian government would refuse this assistance if it were asked for it.

Senator Wong went on to say:

"Mr Dutton does Australians and the Taiwanese no favours by amplifying Beijing's fatalism."
"This is the worst in a litany of cases of the Morrison-Joyce government seeking to use foreign policy and national security for political advantage."

Senator Wong emphasised that any conflict in the Taiwan Strait between the US and China could spiral out of control with potentially drastic consequences.

"The greatest risk to peace, stability and prosperity in our region is the risk of conflict in Taiwan. That said, it is not a risk that is contained to our region," she told her audience.
"The consequences of a kinetic conflict over Taiwan, with the potential for escalation, would be catastrophic for humanity.
"That is why successive Australian, American and regional governments have taken a careful and sober approach to cross-Strait relations."

Senator Wong also deplored the downgrading of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is common knowledge in Canberra that DFAT has a diminished role in the foreign policy debate. At the moment it gives the impression of having shut up shop, pending the next election.

"An Albanese Labor government will provide the leadership and direction our foreign service needs," she said.
"We would ensure a more central role for foreign policy in the content and implementation of strategy. And we would be focused on the key task of maximising our influence in the reshaping of the region."

Senator Wong accused the government of taking a tone-deaf approach to Asian partners and retaining a wistful reverence for the Anglosphere, suggesting that Labor would put more emphasis on Australia's diversity and Indigenous history when framing foreign policy decisions.

"We need to understand how our past attitudes and policy on race can provide others with the opportunity to promote narratives that limit our influence," she said.
"We can counter that, in part, by articulating who we are, our place and shared stake in the region."
"That includes placing the experiences of First Nations peoples — this land's first diplomats — at the heart of our diplomacy. Drawing on our vibrant multiculturalism, we can ground a narrative which enables the possibilities of greater alignment with others."

It didn’t take Peter Dutton long to respond. He was fed a Dixer in question time and came out with all guns blazing. He lashed Ms Wong calling her claims "nonsense" and suggesting her speech "could have been written by Paul Keating" after the former prime minister defended China during an address to the National Press Club. Speaking later with Sky News Australia, Mr Dutton said:

"I think it's an appalling contribution at a time when we should be showing national unity.
"The fact that Penny Wong today has marched away from the spirit of the AUKUS agreement demonstrates that Labor is very weak on national security.
"If the Labor Party is saying that the alliance with the United States is not going to be adhered to or is not Labor Party policy then they should be express about it”.

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