Labor is ‘harking back’ to Keating’s Asia approach, experts say. But much has changed since the 90s

Labor is 'harking back' to Keating's Asia approach, experts say.  But much has changed since the 90s

It seems Australia’s relationship with Asia — particularly China — will be a hot topic in the upcoming federal election.

Labor and the Coalition have very different perspectives on foreign policy, a panel of experts told ABC RN’s Saturday Extra.

Traditionally, international relations and national security are seen as bipartisan areas of Australian politics, Herve Lemahieu, Director of Research at the Lowy Institute, said.

But we are now seeing “heated debate” on the topic.

And he said: “Both sides of politics are harking back to different historical eras.”

A composite image of Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison
Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison are harking back to different eras in their approach to Asia, the panel said.,ABC News,

For example, Labor Leader Anthony Albanese said in a recent Press Club speech that Australia should capitalize on our “privilege of proximity” to Asia.

It’s a phrase that echoes Labor’s approach in the early 1990s, Lemahieu said, when Prime Minister Paul Keating sought closer ties with the region.

On the other hand, he said Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party’s “threat-based” approach to international affairs recalls the 1930s — when the world was preparing for war.

But the Saturday Extra panel agreed that, no matter who wins the election, Australia could learn a lot from its neighbors in how to conduct itself on the international stage.

‘It was all upside’

During the years of the Keating government, many parts of the world were experiencing a post-Cold War era “high”, Lemahieu said.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, conflicts between global powers no longer defined international relations.

Some argued that Western liberal democracy was the end-point of human ideological evolution, an argument set out by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his influential 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man.

Then in 1993, the European Union came into being, providing a concrete example of transnational economic integration.

Man in a dark suit stands at a lecture and addresses the crowd
As Prime Minister, Paul Keating sought closer ties with Asia. ,National Archives of Australia ,

It was in this environment that, in 1994, Keating made his speech to the Asia-Australia Institute where he tied Australia’s future prosperity to its relations with Asia.

He added that Australia had “nothing to fear” from China’s growing influence and that “no country is more important to us” than Indonesia.

Michael Wesley, University of Melbourne’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor International, said when Keating was Prime Minister, “it was all upside for Australia to engage with Asia”.

“Binding ourselves to Asia would make us richer, but it would also reduce the causes of conflict and insecurity,” Professor Wesley said of the period.

But that is “not quite the reality we’re confronted with today”, Lemahieu said.

“There does need to be an adjustment, I think, to that doctrine.”

Professor Wesley agreed, saying that nowadays Australia has “a completely different mindset”.

A deepening rift between China and Australia has seen the superpower exercise “coercive economic diplomacy”, placing tariffs on Australian goods.

Add to this the supply chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic integration with Asia is no longer seen as an “unmitigated positive”, Professor Wesley said.

Coalition ‘fixated’ on China

If Labor is harking back to the post-Cold War era in its attitude to international relations, Lemaheiu said, the Coalition is recalling the years leading up to World War II.

In contrast to Labor’s optimism about Asia, the Coalition’s approach is “a much more pessimistic view of a deteriorating geopolitical environment for Australia and the potential of war with China”.

Lemaheiu said the government is “fixated” on China.

He said Australia must accept that “Asia is larger than China”.

He added that, as a nation, we have to “walk and chew gum at the same time” by engaging more with other countries in the region.

“There are other opportunities — it is not just about war and peace.”

Learning from South-East Asia

Lemaheiu said the biggest challenge for Australia right now is our relationship with middle powers, particularly in South-East Asia.

“We are increasingly going down the track of balancing quite proactively against China in military and strategic terms and associating ourselves with bigger powers… like the United States, Japan and India,” he said.


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