As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and French President Emmanuel Macron exchanged smiles and back slaps this week, Foreign Minister Penny Wong capped off a charm offensive through the Asia-Pacific with selfies in the Malaysian city of her birth.
Between them, the pair have blitzed through a dozen or so countries in their first 40 days in office, with their reception by world leaders at times marking a notable contrast with the previous government.
In Singapore, Defence Minister Richard Marles’ attendance at a dinner alongside his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe led to a one-on-one meeting – the first ministerial contact between the two countries in almost three years.
The new government’s ascension to office has coincided with a busy diplomatic calendar, as well as heightened geopolitical tensions in Europe stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China’s increasing assertiveness, especially in the Asia-Pacific.
But it has also been eager to stamp its mark early on the international stage and clearly differentiate itself from the Morrison government – an exercise to which Macron was an eager facilitator as he warmly welcomed his new counterpart at the Élysée Palace.
Natasha Kassam, the Lowy Institute’s director of public opinion and foreign policy program, said while Albanese’s travel had largely been dictated by must-attend summits, Wong’s overseas blitz demonstrated a clear effort to reboot regional relationships amid China’s courting of influence in the Pacific and its security pact with the Solomon Islands.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his partner Jodie Haydon enjoy the sunshine with French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte outside the Élysée Palace in Paris.Credit:Alex Ellinghhausen
“There is a significant effort [by Wong] to distinguish her travels from the last foreign minister, who was often criticised for not being out there enough and for, perhaps, not engaging in both the Pacific and South-East Asia as much as was needed for this geopolitical moment,” Kassam said.
“There’s a clear effort to visit all the Pacific countries that have recently had a Chinese foreign minister visit them. Part of it is about demonstrating to the region that they’re listening and engaged, but it’s also about continuing with that priority of countering China.”
Wong has made three separate trips to the Pacific in her first month in the job and this week visited Vietnam and Malaysia, while Marles has been to Singapore, Japan and India for regional security and defence meetings and attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Rwanda.
Albanese and Wong have also used their diplomatic outreach to emphasise the new government’s focus on climate change, with the prime minister remarking in Paris this week that “every leader who I’ve met over recent days has indicated a welcoming of Australia’s changed position”.
“The focus of climate change and emissions reductions at the centre of a number of foreign policy speeches and diplomatic outreach is definitely a change – and one that’s been very clearly noticed,” Kassam said.
The thaw between Australia and France following the spectacular fallout between Macron and former prime minister Scott Morrison last year over the aborted submarines deal has helped fuel the perception of a wide-ranging reset of Australian diplomacy. But Kassam said Morrison deserved credit for his foreign policy achievements, including reviving the Quad talks, and negotiating the creation of the AUKUS trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US.
In Singapore, Marles used his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue defence meeting to promise “a change in Australia’s tone” when it came to national security – one that would be forthright but respectful – as he called out China’s destabilising behaviour in the South China Sea.
Justin Bassi, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and ex-chief of staff to former foreign minister Marise Payne, said the meeting between Marles and Wei was positive and demonstrated the benefits of attending multilateral summits. But it should not be misread as a reset in Australia’s relationship with China.
“The structural issues in the relationship, from Beijing’s economic coercion to its arbitrary detention of Australians and its provocative behaviour in the region, remain and will do so until China’s actions change,” Bassi said.
He said the early international blitz was a good sign the government had a constructive foreign policy and national security agenda.
“In particular it signals to our region that the new government is intent on working with partners to actively address the strategic challenges posed by China,” he said.
Other ministers have also jetted overseas, including Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek who attended the UN Oceans Summit in Portugal this week, where Macron singled her out in front of a global audience, declaring that Australia was back in action on climate change. Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil used a trip to Sri Lanka last month to meet with the country’s leaders to discuss combatting people smuggling.
Albanese’s summit schedule means that within his first six weeks as prime minister he has already met with a slew of global leaders, including US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
A spokeswoman for the prime minister said it was in the national interest for Albanese to represent Australia at the Quad and NATO summits and said the government was prioritising rebuilding relationships in the Pacific after “after years of neglect by the previous government”.
”In a more uncertain world, and with growing strategic threats that directly impact our economy and security, the Australian government is strengthening our international partnerships to meet the challenges we face,” the spokeswoman said.
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