Canberra gains little by following in US’ steps

The new Australian Labor government led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is faced with multiple domestic and international challenges. Domestically, Australia faces high levels of inflation and falling standards of living. Despite near full employment, productivity and wages remain stagnant, national debt has reached its highest level since World War II and interest rate increases are negatively impacting significant sectors of the economy.

Internationally, the United States' alliance remains the foundation of Australian foreign policy, while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Union have been nominated for intense trade and security related diplomacy.

Australian foreign policy aligned with US strategy

In a concentrated round of international meetings, Albanese has more closely aligned his government's foreign policy with the US' "Indo-Pacific strategy". In Tokyo for the 4th Quad Dialogue, Albanese supported the Quad initiative to increase European engagement and address the needs of Pacific island partner countries. And cybersecurity and critical technologies, including 5G and semiconductors, were noted as crucial areas where China should be excluded from alliance members' supply chains.

Also, space-related applications and technologies such as the "Quad Earth observation satellite" and "Data Portal "were launched to support disaster response and sustainable use of marine resources. However, the Quad satellite initiative aggregates links between the members' intelligence sharing networks and is an attempt to set "the rules, norms, guidelines and principles for space technology".Significantly, it may be used for monitoring foreign (Chinese) military and naval movements and coordinating US-allies deployments.

During the NATO Summit in Madrid in July, Albanese articulated Australia's support for its new security concept, which identified "systemic competition from those, including the People's Republic of China, who challenge our interests, security, and values and seek to undermine the rules-based international order".

Albanese was also keen to accelerate the AUKUS provision of advanced technologies and nuclear-powered submarines with the US and the United Kingdom and to explore new defense contracts with Spanish shipbuilder Navantia, which has built nearly 60 percent of the Royal Australian Navy's current on-water vessel tonnage since 2006. Albanese's visit to Spain, which will hold the presidency of the Council of the EU from July to December 2023, was an important step in expediting the long-sought EU-Australia trade agreement, that had been delayed by the previous Liberal Party government's reticence to introduce targets for emissions and the transition to renewables.

Canberra resets ties with Paris

A pressing issue for Albanese was the finalization of negotiations with France's Naval Group over its cancelled attack-class submarine program. The settlement of€555 million ($556 million) paved the way for Albanese to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on July 1.As a result, security collaboration and exchange between the two sides will now focus on intelligence sharing, operational engagement and military deployments, reciprocal access to each other's defense facilities and logistical support arrangements.

Also included were increased defense industry cooperation, including strategic space issues, strengthening cyber and crucial technologies and critical infrastructure resilience, and creating avenues for economic and scientific cooperation in maritime transport, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. A key move was support for the French and Quad strategy to combat illegal fishing through satellite surveillance, which can also monitor naval and other military activities.

While in Paris, Albanese also advanced negotiations for the proposed EU-Australia trade agreement and confirmed that Australia's climate action would entail reform of domestic and regional economic structures, and agreed to support an expanded OECD promotion of democracies, open economies, open societies and open governments across the "Indo-Pacific" region.

The Australian prime minister, seeking support from Indonesian President Joko Widodo, met with him on June 6, with the two leaders reaffirming their commitment to ASEAN centrality, Indonesia's upcoming role as ASEAN chair in 2023, the implementation of the ASEAN-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and the importance of ASEAN-led architecture in underpinning regional stability and prosperity.

Albanese and Widodo also affirmed their commitment to the comprehensive strategic partnership launched in 2018, with Australia committing AU$200 million (US$137.07 million) for a climate and infrastructure partnership with Indonesia and offered a support package for the planning, development and facilitation of technical and regulatory advice for building the new clean, green, hi-tech Indonesian capital city of Nusantara.

However, Indonesia is not pleased with the AUKUS alliance and has filed a working paper at the United Nations using very strong language, and is lobbying 120 countries to toughen the language on nuclear propulsion technology. Indonesia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands Forum members support both nonproliferation and a nuclear-free Pacific.

Cybersecurity in focus in defense review

Back in Australia, Albanese launched the Defence Strategic Review "to effectively respond to the most complex strategic environment we have encountered as a nation in over 70 years". Due in the first half of 2023, the report focuses on a perceived gap between "old-war" capability and evolutions in technology, cyber and information, that is, "tanks for more cybersecurity, or the fact we need to be fighting an information war".

Other key issues in focus were the significant delays in delivery of equipment and technology, growing threats of disruptive technologies and the selection of the AUKUS nuclear submarines. AUKUS, said Albanese, "was a comprehensive arrangement" requiring interoperability between Australian and allied defense assets.

In sum, Albanese's overseas honeymoon was spent on ensuring Canberra is more closely aligned with Washington's "Indo-Pacific strategy" on four fundamentals: security, technology, climate action and trade. Australia has committed to establishing NATO-Quad-AUKUS coordination in all military domains-space, cyber, land, sea and air-and, in combination with the US-proposed "Indo-Pacific Economic Framework", technology, commodities, trade and services.

Additionally, Albanese sought to formalize cooperation on nuclear, space, satellite, cyberspace, telecommunications and AI and quantum computing within the new economic and military architecture. But despite his trade-related overtures to ASEAN and the EU providing news headlines, they promise only minimal gains.

Likewise, for climate action, words will need to be matched with deeds, and like many of his predecessors, Albanese will find that corporate resistance over fossil fuel-powered supply chains and exports will be harder than imagined.

US midterm polls may give chance to reset China ties

Once Albanese's foreign policy honeymoon is over and Australia faces the looming reality of increased economic, military and diplomatic costs to sustain Washington's "Indo-Pacific strategy", which primarily benefits the US with little if any economic gains for its allies, domestic economic and social troubles may once again become the main concern of the new Australian government.

That being said, the US midterm elections on Nov 8, along with further political polarization, may provide space for the Australian Labor Party's much sought "reset with China". Albanese will need to make extensive efforts to gain a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov 15-16 to ensure the reset on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Australian diplomatic ties on Dec 21, 2022.

The author is an Australian political analyst, director of the Mekong Research Project and a visiting scholar at the Royal Academy of Cambodia.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.