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Australia election

China on the ballot in Australia as Solomons pact upends debate

Labor shares Liberals' hawkish tone but looks set to pursue more regional diplomacy

Labor leader Anthony Albanese, left, and Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison are both seeking to assure voters that they can manage difficult relations with China. (Nikkei montage/Reuters/Getty Images)

SYDNEY -- Ice-cold ties with China have been a hot topic in Australia's federal election campaign, ahead of the vote this Saturday. But experts say the rival Liberal and Labor parties are more alike than they would care to admit, albeit with subtle distinctions.

The polls come at a sensitive time for Australia's relationship with its largest trade partner, which also happens to be its geopolitical nemesis. The election is also just days before Australia is due to participate in a Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summit in Tokyo next Tuesday, where concerns over China's spreading influence are sure to loom large.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Liberals were tough on China, while Anthony Albanese's Labor was seen as soft on Beijing. But China's move in April to sign a security agreement with the Solomon Islands -- historically close to Canberra -- created an opening to change the narrative.

Morrison had appeared eager to use China to demonstrate his strength on foreign policy, but "the announcement of the Solomons deal has undermined that," said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute. "In other words, Scott Morrison's government has been on the defensive on foreign policy rather than on the attack."

McGregor said that, initially, Labor did not want to talk about China during the election. The party has been dogged by perceptions that it favors Beijing, especially since 2017, when Labor senator Sam Dastyari resigned over a connection with Huang Xiangmo, a donor linked to China's ruling Communist Party. Dastyari had made pro-Beijing remarks over the South China Sea dispute.

In the wake of China's deal with the Solomons, however, Labor blasted Morrison for failing to prevent it. McGregor said the party, whose China policy is in fact largely aligned with the government's, has served up more aggressive campaign pledges. This has included a plan to open a defense school to train Pacific islands' security forces, along with a vow to increase foreign aid to the South Pacific by another $525 million Australian dollars ($368 million) over the next four years.

Whichever party wins, experts say the new government is likely to maintain the firmer China policy Australia has adopted in recent years. Although China is a major customer of key Australian minerals like iron ore, the countries have sparred over suspicions of political meddling by Beijing, a ban on Chinese involvement in Australian 5G infrastructure and the origins of COVID-19. The Chinese side has imposed high tariffs or de facto bans on Australian products including wine and coal.

Both Labor and Morrison's Liberal-National coalition are committed to deepening the U.S. alliance and to advancing the AUKUS partnership with the U.K. and the U.S. to build nuclear-powered submarines.

Labor's Penny Wong, who would become the first Australian foreign minister of Malaysian-Chinese heritage if the party wins, has given no hints of a softer turn. "Our region is being reshaped, much of it because China is being much more assertive and much more aggressive," Wong warned in a speech in Perth on April 22.

One key difference, according to Eurasia Group analyst Neil Thomas, is that Labor would likely lean more on regional diplomacy to respond to China's rising influence, whereas Morrison's coalition has emphasized military threats and prioritized security responses.

As part of Labor's plans to engage in Southeast Asia, the party says it will work with Indonesia on a AU$200 million climate and infrastructure partnership. Labor also aims to achieve "the economic expansion that the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement promised but has not yet delivered," Albanese said in a speech on March 10.

Labor, if elected, also aims to appoint a special envoy to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and create a new office for Southeast Asia in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

"A narrow strategic window exists for Australia to shift the dial on Southeast Asia engagement," Caitlin Byrne, the director of the Griffith Asia Institute, wrote in a note. "Doing so requires political leaders who are prepared to look and invest beyond the narrow parameters of national security."

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