14 July 2020
RICHARD GLOVER, HOST: Australia needs to reimagine its foreign policy, with more self-reliance, and more ambition - this according to a new essay by Labor's Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong.
It's published in the latest edition of the Journal of Australian Foreign Affairs and the Senator joins us on the line.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Good afternoon. Good to be with you, Richard.
GLOVER: Now part of this is about the pandemic. You say it has further destabilised an already pretty destabilised world.
WONG: That's right. I mean, we saw prior to the pandemic that the world was already disrupted, you know, the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, rising nationalism.
And I think much of that disruption has worsened and become much more intense since the arrival of COVID-19. And we're facing the biggest crisis since World War II, the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. We see nationalism to the fore across the world and we're seeing a breakdown of international rules, and perhaps more relevantly, international cooperation.
So I think this is a time where really we have to recognise that the old assumptions can't be relied on and we have to respond to that, by becoming more self-reliant and much more ambitious and that does require true leadership from Australian leaders.
GLOVER: You use some phrases which are quite close to the phrases used by Scott Morrison when he made his big defence speech, the other day.
You talk about the 1930s, comparing us to the 1930s. He he did too. You talk about effectively a poorer, more dangerous, more disorderly world, so did he.
It's interesting that you both see the world - and we're not saying solutions are the same - but you see you both see the world as full of quite a lot of peril at the moment.
WONG: I think that is the rational and logical response to what we're seeing.
But as you said, our responses are quite different.
And I think the issue with Mr Morrison is really that there's always a lot of politics, there's always a lot of announcements.
What we really need is more strategy, less politics, more delivery and fewer announcements.
I mean, even the defence announcement, which we supported; we're reminded of the capability gaps in what Mr Morrison is announcing - which is we've got massive delays on the submarines and now delays on the frigates.
But the more important point is you have to do more than make announcements about military capability.
We have to do more to work with other nations; allied nations and aligned nations.
We have to work with others, to build the region and the world we want, which is a stable and prosperous world, but one that also respects sovereignty.
GLOVER: It's a world with a very belligerent China and a quite belligerent macho United States.
Take COVID as an example, you've got Trump on one side calling it the Wuhan flu and trying to put all the responsibility of American deaths on China's doorstep. On the other hand, you've got China with a total lack of transparency suggestions they've even destroyed evidence at some point.
This is a very unfortunate situation for the world to be in at a time of genuine peril.
WONG: Look, that is one of the great sadnesses, I think, for humanity at this time, Richard.
Which is, that at a time we're facing the worst pandemic in 100 years, at a time where we'd want the world to work together, instead we have rising nationalism, we have intensifying competition between the US and China, between the two great powers.
And unlike the global financial crisis, we don't have coordination, either on the response to the economic downturn, or in response to the pandemic.
Competition rather than cooperation is the order of the day and that is precisely not what the world needs currently.
GLOVER: How do we respond to this freshly bellicose China?
Every day brings a fresh attack on Australia either on something like barley, or beef or today's version for instance, is that the Chinese government has told its citizens that traveling to Australia is dangerous, accusing police here of arbitrarily searching Chinese citizens and seizing their positions. I mean, it's ridiculous. And yet, everyday brings something like this.
What is going on, and what should we do about it?
WONG: First, the advice or the language that you refer to that China has issued is obviously incorrect and we utterly refute it.
I said last year that we are entering a new phase in our relationship with China. China is a one-party, authoritarian state but under President Xi, its nationalism and its authoritarianism have increased.
And as you point out, it's growing assertiveness is affecting us, it's affecting Australia, but it's affecting many other countries as well.
So, we do have to work out how we engage with China, whilst always asserting our values and our interests, which include transparency and our sovereignty.
It's unfortunate that the Government's language, tough language on China has not necessarily been reflected in its policy. In fact, under Scott Morrison we've become more dependent on China for our trade than we had ever before.
GLOVER: That's part of a trend though that's been going on for a long time. Can we talk about the WHO decision, the decision of Australia to try to get an investigation through WHO or someone else into what happened with the coronavirus. I understand that something like the Huawei decision. I think Labor backs that, the Government backs it. It's a very good decision, it makes entire sense for Australia not to basically give its telecommunications system to the Chinese. Fair go.
But should we be involved in things that are not necessarily our responsibility - coronavirus being one example. Couldn't we have left that particular bit of heavy lifting to someone else?
WONG: Look, in terms of the inquiry... Actually I might go to Huawei first. I mean, that decision, actually is consistent with the decision that was made by the Government of which I was a member, which was to exclude Huawei from the NBN build. And it is a decision in Opposition, in relation to 5G that we supported.
I think, more generally on China what we do need to do is work out how we assert our sovereignty and our values whilst still engaging. And the hard point here is that there is no scenario where we can completely decouple from China. So we have to work through how it is that we engage carefully with them.
In relation to the World Health Organization question, as Anthony Albanese pointed out, it is entirely unremarkable that the world would want to understand how this pandemic started. That is an entirely reasonable position for us to be asserting.
I've already said that I thought I would have done it differently if I'd been Australia's Foreign Minister. I wouldn't have made an announcement on Insiders, a domestic announcement before trying to make sure I had the support, on behalf of Australia, of a range of international partners. And it was very clear, from the scramble, that the Government engaged in after that interview from Marise Payne, and after the announcement that we wanted an inquiry, that the Government did not lock that kind of diplomatic cooperation and support in.
I think that was not the sensible way to proceed. I think we could have worked with other countries, as we eventually did before we decided to make this domestic announcement, in the way the Government did.
As I said, I think we need less politics, more strategy and fewer announcements and a bit more delivery.
GLOVER: I wonder, we're all so in awe of China, so fearful of China, so worried about China's impact, so worried about the fact it’s so increasingly bellicose.
I wonder if President Xi has simply overplayed his hand.
There's an interesting piece in the London Times by Matthew Parris, pointing out what a terrible 2020 China has had. They've got a slowing economy, they've got diplomatic isolation, they're not only fighting with us they're fighting with half, it seems like half the countries in the OECD, they've got the blame for the coronavirus, they've got these horrific images of the Hong Kong crackdown being shown around the world.
He's not having the best year and yet we still see, we still fear, we're still in awe of him and his incredible power. Are we overdoing it? Has he overplayed his hand?
WONG: Well there's a few questions there, aren't there!
The first is; I don't believe that China, in the way it's behaving, is garnering friends and allies. And I think that's a reality. Being as assertive as it is, and asserting its interests in ways that the region doesn't agree with, for example in the South China Sea, in its behaviour in Hong Kong, it's not behaving in ways that foster confidence in the international community.
And that's regrettable because China is one of the world's great powers and having it play a responsible role in the global order is, I think, I would argue, in China's interests, as well as in, in the world's interests.
I do think it's very important in how we talk about China that we understand what China is, that we don't engage, notwithstanding the fact that we recognise it is a one-party, authoritarian state with three different values and interests to ours, but that we don't play domestic politics with it.
And I have been critical of some on the backbench that Mr Morrison has allowed to whip up quite a lot of anti-China - potentially anti-Chinese - rhetoric which I don't think has been in our interests.
I think that, you know, we need to assert our values and our interests.
We need to make clear where we disagree, as I have on Hong Kong, as I have on the Uighurs. But it shouldn't become a partisan or a political issue.
GLOVER: Penny Wong is here. The other thing you argue quite strongly, in terms of the response to COVID, is Australia has to acknowledge that there's going to be big economic problems for some countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia might be one example. It's gonna be big problems for people in the Pacific and India is slightly different because it's a, it's a pretty grown up player itself but there's a role for Australia in helping those three groups of countries or countries survive this as best they can.
WONG: This is the point about why we need to do more to more than make defence announcements, as meritorious as they are.
I mean, the reality is, we need a plan for economic recovery in our region. We need leadership from our Government for that.
Instead, what we've seen is a Pacific step-up, as much as it is, which has been accompanied by a Southeast Asian step down.
Prior to the pandemic, we saw reductions in the level of Australian support to Indonesia's health program programs, an 80% cut, which in hindsight was, I think, very short sighted.
You don't see from this Government the sort of regional economic leadership, or in fact, working to get global economic leadership that you saw for example, during the global financial crisis.
The reality is, if the countries of our region continue to be unable to confront the economic consequences, if they worsen over time, the economic consequences of the pandemic - that has implications for us, as well as for our region.
Ultimately, we need to work with others to build the region we want. And to do that we have to work together.
Some of the issues you've raised in relation to China, they are issues and challenges that are shared by many in our region. And we would do best if we work collectively with them with allied nations and aligned nations to build the region we want.
Obviously that also includes the United States, which remains our principal ally and principal security partner.
GLOVER: But we hope Biden wins, do we, in November?
WONG: Well, I'm not going to become John Howard, who not only suggested that the terrorists were barracking for an Obama win but also made negative comments about the presidential candidate, Mr Biden, recently. I think that is very unwise to get into domestic US politics.
We should always, as a friend and ally of the US, be urging constructive engagement in our region. And we should be very vocal within the alliance and as friends about what that should look like.
GLOVER: Well, it's an engrossing piece Penny but I am worried about your cold, it's not COVID is it?
WONG: I've been declared, COVID free, I'm pleased to say - but yes I am afraid I am battling a cold. But it's just your normal garden variety cold so I apologise for my voice.
GLOVER: What's the cure, honey and lemon or something?
WONG: Yes, I've been doing that!
GLOVER: What is the Wong family cure?
WONG: … yes, I promise I will! But look, I appreciate being on your show because I think foreign policy at the moment is, it's not something “out there” anymore, it's something which is very much part of who we are as a country. Foreign policy, I think has come to Australia in a different way. The world isn't out there it's with us in a very different way and we ought to have a sensible, mature, adult discussion about how we deal with this world. And I think we are going to be asked to be more self-aligned and ambitious and we have to do that at home as well as in terms of how we act, and speak to the world.
GLOVER: Well congratulations on the piece and get well soon.
WONG: (Laughs) I'm fine - thank you very much.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.