Wong’s colonial history lesson was actually a geopolitical play

Senator Wong delivering an address to King's College, London.

Image credit: DFAT

This article, by Professor Rory Medcalf AM, appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 3 February 2023.

There were easy headlines this week claiming Foreign Minister Penny Wong had used an academic stage in London to strike back at the British empire.

After all, Senator Wong’s speech at King’s College, London referred to her father’s family experience under British colonialism in Southeast Asia. She alluded to the family history with polite understatement, but wasn’t going to remain silent either.

But this was more than personal. There was a diplomatic point.

Understanding the past, she noted, helps nations ‘share the present and the future’.

Not only share, but shape. Nations that own up to their true histories have an advantage of credibility and reliability when it comes to engaging, adapting and enduring in a world of difference.

And Australia’s region is one of exceptional diversity of cultures, political systems, state size, development and historical experience.

So a narrow or triumphalist view of a national story is anathema to the Indo-Pacific solidarity that middle powers need to preserve peace and balance in the face of authoritarian ambition and geopolitical rivalry. This goes to the ‘strategic equilibrium’ at the centre of an emerging Wong doctrine.

That was the real core of this speech, not some brief controversy over differing national narratives. In any case, the supposed contrast of British imperial nostalgia versus Australian open-mindednes sidesteps the post-colonial multiculturalism of today’s United Kingdom. This is reflected in the diversity of Rishi Sunak’s cabinet, as African-heritage foreign secretary James Cleverly was quick to point out.

The media fuss also obscured the strategic significance to Wong’s London speech.

To be sure, here was an Australian foreign minister reminding the nation of our former colonial overlords that honest history matters. But here also was a key voice from a Labor government presenting a long thread of reason between acknowledging the past and a relationship of deep strategic trust in securing the future.

Whatever discomfort part of the speech may have brought to some sensibilities in Britain – or perhaps to remnant monoculturalism in this country – its totality should do Australia-UK relations some considerable good.

That’s because its underlying message strengthens the bipartisan political scaffolding in both countries for AUKUS, wider security cooperation and London’s role in the Indo-Pacific.

Not long ago it was barely imaginable that Australian Labor would prioritise something like the AUKUS strategic technology arrangement – developing nuclear-powered submarines and other advanced military capabilities with Washington and London.

Now not only is the Albanese government intent on delivering AUKUS, but is contemplating the high electoral likelihood that within a few years its British counterpart will be from the same side of politics. British Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy (also of African heritage) has affirmed support for AUKUS and Britain’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’.

Wong’s London speech is a useful signal to progressive constituencies in both countries that conservative governments have no monopoly on strategic balancing against the bullying authoritarianism of Xi’s China or the outright aggression of Putin’s Russia.

It helps normalise AUKUS as something less unsettling – and more tangible – than imagined Anglosphere alignment.

It also reinforces key themes of the strategic discussions Senator Wong and defence minister Richard Marles held with French as well as British counterparts this week.

The first: that pursuing our shared interests and principles in the Indo-Pacific is not solely about military power, even though the Foreign Minister was unequivocal in endorsing today’s British and French navies as a force for good, adding to ‘strategic equilibrium and collective deterrence in our region’.

But Canberra is also interested in engaging the strengths of all global partners in economics, development, technology and governance. Why? To build the resilience of vulnerable regional countries, whether against rising seas or a risen China’s neocolonial behaviour (even if the government seems careful not to openly call it that at present).

A second theme is the indivisibility of the imperative to defend sovereignty in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific. The Albanese government is finding its own ways to explain why we should help other democracies help Ukraine, and why, as global stakeholders, 21st century Britain, France and the rest of democratic Europe have a legitimate and valued role in securing our region.

This involves providing choices to regional countries - especially in the contested zones of Southeast Asia and the Pacific - other than automatic acceptance of Chinese dominance or a false binary that everything boils down to China-US rivalry.

The language may be more nuanced than the threat-and-freedom rhetoric of the Morrison government, but the intent is no less serious: after all, it’s not as if our intelligence community’s assessments about China’s military modernisation, influence operations or coercive economic statecraft will have changed.

If anything, the risks of crisis and conflict continue to accumulate. Hence the Foreign Minister’s other big concern expressed in the London speech: the need to turn the Biden Administration’s call for diplomatic ‘guardrails’ into effective channels and protocols to reduce the risk of competition with China from escalating to confrontation and catastrophe.

Chinese armed forces have so far been largely unwilling to constrain themselves with such rules, and Senator Wong revealed she had conveyed concerns directly in dialogue in Beijing.

The long history of the Indo-Pacific involves recurring patterns of empire but also of hubris and ruinous conflict. These days it’s Beijing and Moscow that act like imperial capitals. Former colonial powers such as Britain, France, Japan, America, perhaps even Australia know risky imperial overreach when they see it. And Penny Wong is right that Australians don’t want our region’s future to look like its past.


Wong’s colonial history lesson was actually a geopolitical play

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