Australia confronts a world of trouble

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Spare a thought for the burdens of Australia’s leaders, diplomats and security caste at this perilous time in global geopolitics.

From the vantage point of relative respite just a few weeks ago, the voyage for Australian diplomacy seemed clear and sensible.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would advance US alliance ties with the grandeur of a state visit next week to Washington DC, followed before long by a journey to Beijing to mark a historic easing of tensions with China.

The season of summitry would be rounded by November gatherings in Cook Islands and San Francisco to affirm our country’s vital role in the Pacific Islands Forum and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation multilateral institutions.

There’s no reason to assume these painstakingly planned commitments won’t proceed, but the new context is hardly to be wished.

Even if Hamas killers had not rampaged into Israel on October 7, there would have been little self-centred room for assuming that the Australian goals of stabilising relations with China, advancing AUKUS, building Indo-Pacific equilibrium or engaging the Pacific as partner of choice could occur in isolation from pitiless world events.

The global repercussions of Putin’s war in Ukraine and the China-Russia partnership were already seeing to that. This week’s Belt and Road summit in Beijing – a durbar for a new variant of empire, complete with Putin as the world’s first nuclear-armed subaltern – presents a model of the kind of tributary visit an Australian leader will want to avoid.

The international situation is far from one where Australia had the luxury of focusing narrowly on bilateral or regional concerns.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s mission to Pyongyang, blatantly to secure munitions for prolonging aggression, was just another grim data point.

Meanwhile, hopes of neat alignments to comprehensively defend a global rules-based order – if ever they were plausible – face confronting new strains. Even as Australia courts India as a rising mega-state, economic opportunity, source of human capital and partial balance to China, and accepts our differing stances on Ukraine, the accusation persists of a link between the Indian government and the killing of a Canadian citizen.

The international situation was already transforming away from one where Australia had even the slightest luxury of focusing narrowly on bilateral or regional concerns.

And now the widening gyre of conflict in the Middle East, with all its risks of escalation, changes circumstances utterly.

The quality of Australian statecraft, security policy and sociopolitical cohesion will be severely tested. Probably we would never have been prepared. In any case, we’re not.

Following the unsuccessful referendum to establish an Indigenous Voice to parliament – a fraying experience, no matter where one stands regarding the best path to national reconciliation and historical justice – now is a time, however unpropitious, for cross-partisan solidarity and national readiness.

Readiness for what? Already parts of the security community will be close to crisis mode, if not there already. Consular operations are running at scale and complexity, getting Australians out of Israel and desperately looking for ways to bring others out of Gaza and Lebanon.

Domestically, the potential now rises for opportunistic violence by extremists, as recognised by ASIO chief Mike Burgess, even if formal threat levels are yet to be raised.

Whatever the government’s economic and social priorities, key ministers are solidly on their national security game.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong called off travel to important Indo-Pacific partners Japan and South Korea to focus on the safety of Australians abroad.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, true to her credo of multicultural respect, speaks of shared grief with Australia’s Jewish and Palestinian communities, while properly attributing the cause of carnage to Hamas.

Third front of global crisis

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles, while keeping to his commitments this week in North Asia, is openly identifying the connections between multiple threats to global order, from Russia, China, North Korea, Hamas and its other enablers.

His under-reported speech this week in Seoul also reinforced the warning that China should not draw from Russia the lesson that military aggression works. The language was suitably veiled, and in evoking the memory of resistance to North Korea’s 1950 invasion of the South he politely left aside the memory that the UN forces (including Australians) were fighting China too.

But the fact he felt compelled to say it, and to say it now when America’s vigilance is suddenly elsewhere – or diluted everywhere - implies something about how the government secretly sees the possibility of a third front of global crisis opening in Australia’s own region. By extension, this speaks to the lasting fragility of relations with China, no matter how deft our diplomacy.

Ministers are fully engaged, but the great responsibility for what Australia does next rests with the PM, as ultimately minister for national security.

Even while travelling, and with Marles as acting leader, there will be the expectation that the government build and sustain a message of national unity, whatever worsening shocks the Middle East conflict may bring.

A narrative of national cohesion – an Australia secure, one and free, defined by the rights and responsibilities of citizenship – should be a priority of government, not a place for the temptation of partisan point-scoring from opposition.

It was an opportunity lost that this week’s national cabinet meeting did not declare a coordinated message across the federation, to reassure Australians of all communities that they would be protected from intimidation, especially following blatant threats to Jewish Australians.

In international relations, too, the government will not be able to avoid the shockwaves of Middle East conflict. In Washington, Beijing, San Francisco and even on quiet Rarotonga, it will be impossible to compartmentalise issues of alliance, stabilisation, economics and development, without taking a position on the new security turmoil and the cleavages it threatens.

Professor Rory Medcalf AM is Head of the ANU National Security College.
This article originally appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 20 October 2023.

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Australia confronts a world of trouble

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