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International relations

Australia's Labor plans foreign policy pivot to Southeast Asia

If party wins election, it is likely to show a softer attitude to China

Balancing relations with China and the U.S. has long been a difficult task for Australia.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- An expected win by the opposition Labor Party in Saturday's general election is likely to bring about a pivot in Australia's foreign policy to Southeast Asia and a softer line on China.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, leader of the current Liberal-National coalition government, last year angered Muslim countries in Asia such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan by recognizing West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Labor's Penny Wong, who would become the first Australian foreign minister of Malaysian heritage if the party was elected, slammed Morrison's decision as "all risk and no gain." She said that her first overseas trips would be to Malaysia and Indonesia, Australia's closest neighbors -- and both crucial to national security.

Labor leader Bill Shorten said in a speech last October that building "strategic trust" with Indonesia would be "a central objective of the [Labor] government," and would put a "clear focus on the nations and institutions of Southeast Asia."

Labor is promising to increase diplomatic posts in Indonesia and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and to increase official development assistance as a percentage of Australia's gross national income every year.

"It is central to Labor party's distinctive approach to foreign policy to spend a great deal of attention on its relations with Asia and the Pacific," said Michael Wesley, professor of international affairs at the Australian National University. He said that Labor would be "much more focused" on regional institutions such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation.

The current conservative government has closely followed Washington's tough stance on China. For example, Australia was quick to ban Huawei Technologies from building out its fifth-generation infrastructure in the country.

Australia has always found it difficult to strike a balance between maintaining warm relations with China and the U.S. Since 2017, under former Prime Minister Turnbull, the government has accused China of meddling in Australia's domestic politics. There is speculation that China is reportedly retaliating against Canberra's Huawei ban by restricting Australian coal imports.

But Shorten so far has shown a softer attitude to China.

Shorten said in an interview with local media that he "won't view China just through the strategic prism of worst-case scenario," signaling greater efforts to reestablish dialogue with its biggest trade partner.

Richard McGregor, senior fellow at think tank Lowy Institute, said such efforts could be tied to Beijing's Belt and Road initiative and other development investments. But he added that Labor's softer attitude toward China would not being about an immediate warming of relations, as Shorten added that Australia's interests will come first.

"Overall, it is a difficult relationship," McGregor said.

For example, Labor's plan to play a larger role in the security and development of the South Pacific region will also mean it will not accept Chinese dominance there, according to Rory Medcalf, head of ANU's National Security College.

ANU's Wesley said Labor could focus more on trade relations with China, rather than on security.

Amid increased tensions between the U.S. and China, Labor "may be prepared to be a bit more critical of the U.S." than the coalition, Wesley said.

Earlier this month, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating launched an explosive attack on Australia's spy agency, calling them "nutters" and urging Shorten to fire them to improve ties with Beijing. Shorten said he does not share Keating's view, telling local media that he has "worked very well with the national security agencies."

But still, a Labor victory is far from certain.

The latest opinion poll by The Australian newspaper and Newspoll on May 12 showed Labor leading the Liberal-National coalition 51% to 49%.

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