Inside Story

Making up for lost time

Penny Wong wants an Australia that’s more than just a supporting player in the grand drama of global geopolitics

Margaret Simons 1 November 2022 3373 words

Ambitious for Australia: foreign minister Penny Wong during a meeting with Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong and prime minister Anthony Albanese at Parliament House on 18 October. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

One of the complications of writing a biography of a living person is that the story isn’t over. Far from it, in the case of Penny Wong, the subject of a full-length biography I published in 2019. Based on extensive research and half a dozen interviews with its subject, it was an account of a work very much in progress.

For most of the time I was working on the book, Wong and I — and most other observers — expected her to become foreign minister after the May 2019 election, which all the polls and most pundits were tipping Labor to win. She had been preparing for the job not only for the three-plus years she had held the shadow portfolio, but also during her previous term as shadow trade minister. She had always made clear that she didn’t seek to be prime minister; foreign minister was the job she wanted and the height of her ambition.

The plan was for Indonesia to be her first post-election stop-off as minister, followed by a made-for-media return to the city of her birth, Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysian Borneo. As a powerful illustration of her story and connections and an affirmation of Australia’s place in Asia, it was a public relations coup out of reach of any previous Australian foreign minister.

But then came the election defeat, and Wong had another three years to prepare. The pandemic set in, Donald Trump lost the American presidency and Xi Jinping’s grip tightened in Beijing. Among Australia’s Pacific neighbours, Chinese influence became even more apparent.

On 2 August this year Wong, now foreign minister, gave an unpublished address to staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Acknowledging that the department had lost influence under the previous government, she declared that Australia needed DFAT to be “more central and more persuasive” in an increasingly uncertain world. To do that, she said, required “frank advice, good decisions, courageous effort, focused advocacy, and me to do my job.”

She appealed to staff to “be ambitious for Australia,” to work with her to bring foreign affairs “back to the centre of the Australian government… We need to be creative; we need to be bold… to advance Australia’s interests and values.”

It was one of a series of speeches reflecting the new minister’s vision of what she had described in opposition as a “transformational” foreign policy. Australia can’t afford to be caught passively in the slipstream of the contest between the big powers, she argued, picking up a phrase used by foreign policy analyst Allan Gyngell. Rather, it is in the “influence game” and must use all available tools of statehood to negotiate the most uncertain time in recent history.

This means DFAT staff must lift their ambitions and the quality of their advice. “I think that starts with clarity of purpose,” she told them. “What is our purpose? To explain Australia to the world and the world to Australia. To clearly articulate our place in the world — as it is, as it should be — and deliver plans to bridge that gap… We’re not here to occupy the space. We’re not here to admire the complexity of problems we face. We’re not here to mollify. We are here to advocate.”

An urgent need to visit the Pacific and a succession of other overseas trips had stopped Wong from speaking to DFAT staff sooner. Her immediate focus had been the Solomon Islands government’s decision to sign a security pact with China — a development she described during the election campaign as “the worst Australian policy failure since the second world war.”

As it turned out, her first trip as minister was to the North Pacific rather than Indonesia. The day after she was sworn in, Wong and prime minister Anthony Albanese were in Tokyo for the Quad leaders’ summit. Then, over the subsequent ninety-nine days, she made four trips to Pacific nations (to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, New Zealand and the Solomons, and July’s Pacific Islands Forum summit in Fiji) and three to Southeast Asia (to Vietnam and Malaysia, Singapore and, twice, Indonesia).

In speeches during those visits she signalled her ambition to change how Australia is seen in the world — and her view that this is the starting point for an ambitious foreign policy agenda in which Australians will become “more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics.”

At the Pacific Islands Forum, she avoided telling island nations what to do, instead suggesting they act regionally, as a “family,” to decide matters for themselves. The speech appeared designed to encourage a kind of peer pressure, elevating the sometimes shaky forum (from which Kiribati had just withdrawn) as a venue where the concerns of Pacific Island nations could be brought to bear externally, on larger powers, and internally on the China-friendly Solomons prime minister Manasseh Sogavare and others.

Without explicitly mentioning China, Wong said that Australia was “a partner that won’t come with strings attached, nor impose unsustainable financial burdens. We are a partner that won’t erode Pacific priorities or institutions.” She acknowledged that Australia had “neglected its responsibility” on climate change, “disrespecting Pacific nations in their struggle to adapt to what is an existential threat.” That would change, she promised, with the creation of an Australia-Pacific Climate Infrastructure Partnership to support projects in Pacific countries and Timor-Leste. She also won the leaders’ support for a joint pitch to co-host the UN’s COP29 climate summit in 2024.

This is what Wong calls “listen first” diplomacy: meeting people where they are rather than where you want them to be. It is far from easy.

A blow-up with Sogavare came when he announced he would delay the Solomons’ 2023 election because the country didn’t have the funds to run the poll in the same year as it hosts the Pacific Games. Wong’s offer of Australia’s help to pay for the election wasn’t novel — similar assistance has been given before — but its timing while the relevant bill was before the Solomons parliament provoked a furious reaction. Wong was attempting to “directly interfere into our domestic affairs,” Sogavare thundered, though he went on to accept the funding and delay the election regardless.

The federal opposition portrayed the incident as a blunder on Wong’s part. But others in the foreign policy community point out that she rarely speaks without calculation and may well have wanted Solomon Islanders to know that Sogavare’s excuse for the delay had been removed.

More broadly, Wong wants to engage with other small and middle powers in the region to define and articulate a common interest in building a “peaceful, prosperous region in which sovereignty is respected.” She hopes this will ultimately help shape how the superpowers behave.

In dealing with the countries of Southeast Asia, Wong has emphasised the centrality of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — the body that Kevin Rudd has described as the “swing state” in the battle for regional dominance between China and the United States. As Wong said last November, “the countries of Southeast Asia have made clear they don’t want to choose between the great powers — but want to exercise their own agency in how the region is being reshaped.”

As Allan Gyngell wrote in his 2017 book Fear of Abandonment, Australian foreign policy has always assumed dependence on a great power — first Britain and then the United States. The fear in Gyngell’s title has never been more keenly felt than now. Australia watched as the United States under Barack Obama promised to “pivot” to Asia but then failed to deliver. It tried to decipher the chaos of the Trump administration, which seemed to be abandoning America’s global mission to defend an international order on which the security of middle powers like Australia depends.

These shifts underlined Gyngell’s view about the dangers of being caught in the great powers’ slipstreams. Australia’s historical preference for hunkering down in the company of allies no longer serves the times, he argues. Gyngell is one of the foreign policy analysts Wong most admires.

Has Australia in any sense punched above its weight in foreign policy over the decades? The answer would certainly have been “yes” in the 1970s and 80s, when prime minister Malcolm Fraser played a role in creating a post-apartheid future for South Africa by using the Commonwealth as a venue for the defence of human rights. Fraser’s government also brought a practical end to the White Australia policy, changing the face of the nation with migrants from Southeast Asia.

“Yes,” as well, under the succeeding Labor government of Bob Hawke, when the man generally regarded as Australia’s most successful foreign minister, Gareth Evans, increased Australia’s engagement with Asia and articulated the concept of Australia as a middle power. His achievements included initiating a UN peace plan for Cambodia and helping establish both the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

But most observers would have answered “no” in recent years, as Australia became a laggard in climate policy and lost credibility in its natural sphere of influence, the Pacific. For island governments, rising sea levels are an existential issue.

Coming into this mix, Penny Wong is an extraordinary package. She is a self-conscious intellectual and policy wonk. As well as foreign minister she is the leader of the government in the Senate, and is generally regarded as the intellectual leader of Labor’s left, which is also Anthony Albanese’s faction. She is one of the prime minister’s closest allies and friends.

As she told Singapore’s International Institute for Strategic Studies in one of her first speeches after the election, she is far from the first Australian foreign minister to recognise the importance of relationships with Southeast Asia. “But I am the first to make these statements as an Australian foreign minister who is from Southeast Asia.”

Wong’s history binds together central themes in Australia’s development. On both sides of her family she is the product of British colonialism and its impact on the region. On her mother’s side, she is as deeply rooted in Australia as is possible for someone not of Aboriginal ancestry. Her great-great-great-grandparents migrated from Britain to what became the colony of South Australia in 1836, refugees from the exigencies of the industrial revolution. On her father’s side, she is the descendant of Cantonese Chinese recruited to labour on the vast tobacco and timber plantations and in the tin mines by the British North Borneo Company.

Wong’s most powerful understanding of her Chinese ancestry comes from the experiences of her Hakka grandmother, Lai Fung Shim, who singlehandedly ensured the survival of the family line during the brutal Japanese wartime occupation of Borneo in the early 1940s. Francis Yit Shing Wong, Penny Wong’s father, was Lai Fung Shim’s oldest child.

Francis Wong was a beneficiary of the postwar Colombo Plan, which sponsored academically able Asians to study in Australia. His decision to enrol in architecture at the University of Adelaide meant that — as Wong put it in a speech in Kuala Lumpur in late June — “a charming young Malaysian man could meet a bold young Australian woman.”

With the White Australia policy still in force, the newly married couple couldn’t stay in Australia. They settled in Francis’s hometown of Kota Kinabalu, where Penny Wong was born in 1968. North Borneo had been a British protectorate when Francis left for South Australia; by the time he returned it was part of the new nation of Malaysia.

After the marriage broke down, Wong’s mother took her and her brother back to Adelaide. They were the only Asian faces in their suburban primary school. The racism Wong suffered, and the strength she developed in surviving it, became a defining feature of her personality.

Only when prime minister Paul Keating declared in 1992 that the fall of Singapore was as important to the Australian story as Gallipoli, and the war casualties in Malaysia and Borneo as important as those in Europe, did Wong conclude that Australia was her home. When her plane touched down in Adelaide after a visit to her father that year, she thought to herself, “This is my country now. This is my place.”

It is this sense of the nation that Wong describes as central to an effective foreign policy. The time has come to stop championing the Anglosphere, she has said: “Foreign policy starts with who we are.” Australia, she told the Pacific Islands Forum, is a country with 270 ancestries, including the world’s oldest continuous culture. “This gives us the capacity to reach into every corner of the world and say, ‘we share common ground.’”

Wong has urged the leaders of Pacific Island nations and the countries of ASEAN to join Australia in attempting to shape a “settling point” between the United States, Australia’s most important ally, and China, its biggest trading partner. She has also referred approvingly to Kevin Rudd’s view that Australia and the countries of the region should seek “managed strategic competition” between China and the United States “within a set of minimum guardrails to reduce the risk of escalation, crisis, conflict and war.”

Wong has talked of moving Australia beyond reliance on the United States to a more activist role: unapologetic and robust in defending core democratic values, retaining the centrality of the alliance but seeking cooperation with China where possible. More than this, and although it is not explicitly stated, Wong clearly hopes to provide the United States with ideas about how to engage with the countries of the region without playing into Chinese narratives about arrogant, interfering white colonialists.

In Kuala Lumpur, she described ASEAN as “holding the centre of the Indo-Pacific.” Its strength, she said, “lies in its ability to speak for the region and to balance regional powers. All countries that seek to work with the region have a responsibility to engage constructively and respectfully with it.”

Wong first articulated the “settling point” concept during a speech to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta in September 2019, when she was still in opposition. US leadership would be most effective, she said, “when it is conceived in terms of leading a community of nations, with all that entails.” Beijing, too, should recognise that “most of us in the region are not comfortable with an authoritarian China becoming the predominant power.”

With Donald Trump still in the White House, she went on: “It’s fair to say that many countries in the region are unclear about what precisely it is that the United States is seeking to achieve… Absent that clarity, China will assume the worst… Great powers will do what great powers do to assert their interests. But the rest of us are not without our own agency.”

A “settling point” would mean the United States embracing a multipolar future for the region “with countries like Indonesia, India and Japan playing increasingly important leadership roles… Defining a realistic settling point will also help the United States recognise and accept that decisions relating to China will vary depending on the issues and interests at stake.” It would also remind Beijing that “when we make decisions that defend or assert our national interests in ways that may not reflect China’s views it is not due to a cold war mentality.” People who value the United States’ leadership, she said, “want the US to retain it by lifting its game, not spoiling China’s.”

She has repeated those ideas in several speeches, though since taking government the language has been more subtle. “Settling point” is still mentioned, but the emphasis has shifted to “strategic equilibrium.”

Another strand of Wong’s thinking, not yet fully articulated, is a promise to put the history of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the centre of foreign policy. She has appointed a First Nations ambassador within her department, and when she was accompanied to the UN General Assembly in September by senator Pat Dodson, who hosted a roundtable on First Nations foreign policy involving Canada, New Zealand and other countries with Indigenous populations.

Wong has also indicated that Australia will be following a more active investment policy in Southeast Asia — with more detail clearly to come. This move recognises that China’s pitch for influence is overwhelmingly economic rather than military or cultural, and any response needs to be in kind.

China will continue to be a key challenge. Wong neither endorsed nor criticised US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, but she labelled China’s response as excessive and called for “restraint and de-escalation.” She described a new UN report on China’s detention of the Uighurs as “harrowing reading” and acknowledged it had found allegations of torture to be credible; but she also said that Australia’s response would be decided in consultation with other countries. Unlike the previous government, she is not putting Australia on the front line of conflict with China, but nor is she taking a backward step on key values.

Equally significant is what she doesn’t do, and doesn’t say. In the days after those comments, every serious current affairs program in Australia sought her out for an interview. That she declined them all might have created a background level of frustration, but it enabled her to duck the inevitable question about Taiwan. Would Australia, push comes to shove, join the United States in a military conflict with China?

The former government’s defence minister, opposition leader Peter Dutton, said last November that it was “inconceivable” Australia would not join in. But Wong has been keen to dial down the rhetorical heat. “More strategy, less politics” is her strategy. “Talk less, do more.”

With the Pacific dominating her first weeks in power, it was June before Wong made that long-planned return to Kota Kinabalu. The visit came complete with the perfect photo opportunity: the minister and her Chinese Malaysian half-siblings eating fish ball juk and noodles in the cafe she loved as a child. The message was explicit: this was her story, but it was also contemporary Australia’s.

Given that opinion polls suggest the Albanese government has increased its popularity since its election win, Wong is likely to have at least two three-year terms to enact and develop her foreign policy approach.

Will it work? Perhaps, in these bellicose times, it is optimistic to suppose that middle powers can have the agency Wong seeks. One strand in Australian foreign policy commentary doubts that the United States is really committed to the region — and believes Washington might well conclude its essential interests are not at stake there. Having accepted the Asia-Pacific would become a sphere of Chinese influence, it would then depart, leaving a friendless Australia carrying the can for the United States’ China containment policies.

In a recent Quarterly Essay Hugh White suggested the battle is already effectively over and China has won. Australia should tell the United States to surrender Taiwan to Beijing and then begin to talk to China about its role in the new hegemony.

On the other hand, foreign policy scholars and politicians agree that Australia does have influence in Washington. As the head of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, Michael Green, put it in a response to White, “the strategic community on Asia policy in DC is pretty small and also very impressionable. If there are good ideas from trusted partners like Australia, they go right to the top.”

The good idea, from Wong and the thinkers she respects, is to listen first, shun binary thinking, and accept a multipolar region in a rules-based world. All this, and attempt to maintain mutual respect.

If Wong is successful in shifting the dial, Australia will once again have punched above its weight, claiming agency in the region, allied to but not necessarily always following the United States. It will have helped shape the behaviour of regional forums and the superpowers, and perhaps even contributed to avoiding war. •

Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.