Australia calls for greater U.S. trade focus in Asia

Foreign Minister Penny Wong also called for caution on “nationalistic domestic posturing" in the U.S. and China.
Alex Willemyns for RFA
Australia calls for greater U.S. trade focus in Asia “Australia too has a big job to do in supporting enhanced American economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” says Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, shown speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The United States needs to focus on increasing trade ties with Asia to ensure its strategic preeminence in the region, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said in Washington on Wednesday.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Wong welcomed the U.S. call for “guardrails” in its rivalry with China, and warned growing “nationalistic domestic posturing” in both Washington and Beijing could lead to war.

But Wong said while many countries across the Indo-Pacific support a U.S. military presence, it is also “a region that is not enthusiastic about great power competition” and prefers to focus on trade.

“Australia too has a big job to do in supporting enhanced American economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific. This has to be a core alliance priority,” Wong said, explaining that America had to refocus on showing value to Asian countries “beyond security interests.”

“We need to demonstrate that their interest in stability and development is an interest that we, too, share – that we have skin in the game,” she said. “Moreover, U.S. policy should be based on a clear understanding of what the rest of the Indo-Pacific wants.”

Free trade zones

After the Obama administration led negotiations to create the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade pact that grouped U.S. allies, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the dealings in 2017. Japan then wrangled together 11 remaining countries into a new and pared-down pact called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“America’s decision not to proceed with the CPTPP is still being felt in the region, just as the decision not to proceed with the T-TIP is still being felt by international partners,” Wong said, referring to Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a U.S.-Europe free trade deal that was also nixed by the Trump administration.

“Plainly, there is a view in Washington that U.S. allies must work together on principles of collective security. But we’ve also reached a stage in the evolution of our alliances where they will also require a fully developed economic dimension as well,” Wong said.

American trade concerns have in recent years been superseded by the growing U.S.-China military rivalry, with Washington increasingly warning that Beijing hopes to take control of Taiwan and the South China Sea as part of an effort to achieve regional naval hegemony.

Trilateral pact

Wong’s appeal Wednesday came amid the first in-person meeting of the Australian, American and British defense ministers under the guise of the trilateral AUKUS security pact. On Tuesday, Wong and Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles also met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for annual meetings to discuss the U.S.-Australia alliance.

At a press conference Tuesday, Austin announced increased U.S. military rotations through Australia – a common pledge after such meetings, which Austin refused to quantify – as well as the likely participation of Japan in upcoming U.S.-Australian drills.

Both Wong and Marles praised the U.S. alliance, with Marles commending the growing U.S. focus on Asia in recent years and its outreach to their government, led by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, since it came to power this year.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong speaks at a press conference with Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles [left], U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken [second from right] and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III at the State Department in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (AFP)

“There is a huge sense of alignment that we feel between the Biden administration and the Albanese government in the trajectory of the alliance,” said Marles, who is also Australia’s deputy prime minister.

“There is an enormous sense of gratitude and pleasure that we have in the way in which America is engaging in the Indo-Pacific, its presence – not just in terms of attendance at the various gatherings in the Indo-Pacific, but what America is bringing to those tables,” he added. “It is as good as we have seen in a very, very long time.”

Blinken and Austin also praised the strength of the alliance, with the defense secretary praising the sense of “mateship” he said was the bedrock of a relationship he called an “unbreakable alliance.”

Softer approach?

The official visit to Washington is the first by the foreign and defense ministers since Albanese’s Labor Party won elections in May. In the lead-up to that vote, Albanese’s predecessor, Scott Morrison, had argued a Labor government would take a softer approach on Beijing.

However, also speaking in Washington on Tuesday, Morrison said he welcomed Albanese’s recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which took place shortly after last month’s Biden-Xi meeting and helped thaw a diplomatic freeze by Beijing against Canberra.

“I welcome the fact that President Xi has met with Prime Minister Albanese. I welcome that outcome. But I wouldn't want to mistake that as being a change of direction,” Morrison said at an event on China hosted by the Hudson Institute. “I would note it is a change of tactic [from China], and China's intent has not changed.”

Charles Edel, the Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the new Australian government’s foreign policy in regards to China appeared to be continuing where that of the last government left off, including on issues like Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Pacific islands and the AUKUS pact. 

“During the Australian election, Labor campaigned on having no substantive differences with the previous government, but changing the tone of their relationship with China,” Edel said. “Six months in, the government seems to be doing just that.”


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