Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, gave a speech at the National Press Club on Monday. Its title was “Australian Interests in a Regional Balance of Power.” The address was largely understood to be a response to recent attacks on her stewardship of Australia’s foreign policy and committing to the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal this year.
The speech didn’t contain any groundbreaking revelations, or spark the intraparty fight many media commentators seemed to be hoping for. It did, however, highlight the increasing doublespeak of Australian foreign policy in this era of looming conflict.
Wong argued that the US security guarantee in the Indo-Pacific is what has allowed the region a long stint of peace and wealth. Australia, she maintained, was committed to this status quo. But this “balance,” as she labeled it, and the prosperity of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, are now threatened by a regional power with dominating ambitions: China. Wong argued that the very nature of the region is being redefined. While warning against commentators who “love a binary,” she nonetheless insisted that only two options exist for the region’s future:
A region where no country dominates and no country is dominated . . . [or] a closed, hierarchical region where the rules are dictated by a single major power to suit its own interests.
She argued that continued US engagement in the Indo-Pacific will help achieve the former, and implied that, if left unchecked, China’s natural drive to “maximize its advantage” will lead to the latter.
Wong’s speech, which was not really at odds with most mainstream commentary, obscures two aspects of this looming crisis: the nature of the conflict between the United States and China, and Australia’s role in it.
Hostages to History?
Wong’s speech contained a strange, repeating oscillation about the nature of the US-China conflict in the Asia-Pacific. In one moment she argued that “guardrails,” to use Joe Biden’s language, were essential to manage this great power rivalry; in the next she claimed the prism of great power competition was reductive, unhelpful, and inaccurate. On the latter point, she noted that “today’s circumstances have prompted comparisons with 1914,” but she cautioned that those comparisons should serve as warnings — “but nothing more.”
The historical parallel, however, is more than just allusion to a violent conflagration. This is because comparing today’s situation to 1914 — and more specifically, the inter-imperial conflict between the United Kingdom and Germany — means acknowledging that the conflict is not just between two hegemons but between two capitalist powers. Germany in the early twentieth century faced a crisis of profitability; the domestic working class didn’t have high enough incomes to buy back what it made. To deal with this excess capacity, Germany exported capital (mostly through loans) to try to create overseas markets. But this urgent economic imperative to increase its sphere of influence put German capitalism on a collision course with the United Kingdom and its already-established overseas markets.
This dynamic is remarkably similar to what is happening today: simply replace “Germany” with “China” and the “United Kingdom” with “the United States.”
If this just sounds like a fatalistic Thucydides Trap with some economic jargon thrown in, it isn’t. The point is that there are no tools to fix a problem concerning destiny, but plenty to address one that relates to distribution. One possibility, as sociologist Ho-fung Hung has consistently argued in relation to both Chinese and US economies, is that
reviving profits through redistribution instead of intensifying zero-sum intercapitalist competition could contain the deterioration into interstate conflict . . . to be sure, such a rebalancing act, which hinges on breaking the corporate oligarchies’ resistance to redistribution, is easier said than done.
In other words, if it’s capitalism’s economic imperatives that bring us to the brink of war, its class-rule characteristics then become the biggest barrier to any alternative course of action.
Strategic Equilibrium at the Hoedown
In her Press Club speech, Wong emphasized Australia’s desire for “strategic equilibrium” in the Asia-Pacific region so that “all countries” can exercise “their agency to achieve peace and prosperity.” At the same time, she stressed that “America is central to balancing a multipolar region.” AUKUS, and any increase in defense spending or military cooperation with the United States, she said, are part and parcel of this “regional balance that keeps the peace.”
But far from Wong’s expressed commitment to peace, all the signs indicate a keenness for conflict. There is the AUD$368 billion AUKUS procurement of nuclear-powered submarines. The Quad meeting in Sydney next month will occur against the backdrop of calls to turn the nonbinding group into a more formal military alliance. And the Talisman Sabre war games are scheduled for July in Northern Australia. This military exercise is a symbolic endorsement of the US-Australia alliance, and the thirty thousand troops participating this year is double what it was in 2021.
Despite Wong’s claimed commitment to a multipolar region, Australia has historically demonstrated a blind dedication to a unipolar world and US domination of the Asia-Pacific. Its efforts have involved extreme violence, direct or outsourced, and been aimed at containing China.
For example, Australia, the UK, and the United States backed the 1965 mass murder of communist sympathizers in Indonesia in order to achieve this goal. At the time, the Australian prime minister Harold Holt glibly boasted to the Murdoch family’s Australian-American Association in New York that “with 500,000 to one million Communist sympathizers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.”
There is not enough space here to do justice to Australia’s real historical and ongoing role in the Pacific. Commentators like David Brophy and Clinton Fernandes, however, have done fantastic work documenting Australia’s exploited and exploitative foreign policy in the region. While the United States demands Australian subservience economically and militarily, every Australian government then demands that all Pacific nations submit and open their economies to Australian big business.
Wong’s insistence that all Pacific nations share the same interests and vision for the region — despite that clearly not being the case — hid a message. Despite decrying ultimatums, her speech in fact seemed to offer Pacific nations a veiled one: join China or join our effort to contain it.
For its part, the Chinese state has offered Wong its own ultimatum: develop Australia as the mediating bridge between East and West it has sometimes claimed to be or continue to play US deputy sheriff and face the consequences. In this increasingly dangerous “hoedown,” as one commentator dubbed the twenty-first-century US fight for strategic hegemony, Wong’s “war is peace” rhetoric won’t stand.
Mining for War
The US state has a substantial network operating to ensure the Australian political elite toes the line of containment. With working Australians largely unorganized and with little direct influence, it’s worth considering who else has Wong and her government’s ear.
Australia’s most prominent capitalists have a recent record of making and breaking Australian governments in cahoots with the United States. But they are, at least for now, less bruised than their US counterparts by China’s squeeze on foreign companies. Perhaps because of this, they have been politely encouraging about the prospect of dialogue.
Mining (and now shipping) magnate Andrew Forrest is a nice example of this. Forrest visited Beijing in March, and decried “political power plays at home leading to non-collaboration between massive economies [that] will be seen as vacuous, shortsighted, visionless, selfish leadership in the 2020s.” He urged the United States and China to avoid this legacy and to collaborate on (and create profits from) the climate crisis. But Forrest is also planning to profit from the AUKUS deal and is setting up independent shipping interests that might do quite well during a war in the region. This suggests big business is rather flexible on questions of war and peace. Put simply, Australia’s billionaires are keen to make hay while the sun shines, but have an insurance policy in case it stops.
There are alternatives to war. But as Penny Wong’s and Australian big business’s comments and actions demonstrate, our political establishment might not have the stomach for peace.