Australia’s fortunes rise as Anthony Albanese demonstrates statecraft

Albanese meeds Modi and Macron

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese subverted expectations this week, perhaps not for the last time in his career.

Few were expecting the political hardman from Sydney’s inner-south to be adept on the world stage. The roaring reviews for his first appearance, an international summit that included a meeting with US President Joe Biden, said as much.

Some columnists seemed pleasantly surprised the old hard left operative hadn’t thrown red paint on Mr Biden.

This week, Mr Albanese showed not only is he up to more complex diplomacy, but he is every inch the foreign policy conservative.

It has been made clear this week that his predecessor Scott Morrison was actually the radical, as the PM worked to mend the broken pieces of Australia’s foreign policy alliances.

Guarded optimism

Mr Albanese was again the conservative while never betraying more than guarded optimism after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week.

The bonhomie was chequered with references to ‘values’ and ‘international law’ – allusions to criticism about the South Pacific and human rights that Foreign Minister Penny Wong has been stating plainly since the government was elected.

It was a historic moment, but one which Mr Albanese did not need to do anything more to gain than not be Mr Morrison.

After concluding the last high-level leaders’ meeting with a Chinese counterpart four years ago, Mr Morrison went off on a tear that sunk the relationship culminating in a call for weapons inspector-style officials to be sent to China to investigate the origins of COVID.

It drew retaliation from the Chinese, including $20 billion in sanctions that touched on fears of sovereignty and a disrupted regional order.

But it has never been adequately explained why the previous government chose to charge so hard on China and become the only Western country to be put in the freezer.

Previous Liberal PMs kept an alliance with America as they navigated a huge relationship with China. But Mr Morrison seemed preoccupied with doing anything but.

“The time had come for Australia to be more strident in its language about China’s conduct,” said one insider account in the recent book Plagued.

Professor of Chinese history David Brophy reckons it was a deliberate strategy and that Mr Morrison, worried about changing geopolitical balances, was trying to shore up relations with America.

Outsized task

That this is even plausible says a lot about Mr Albanese’s outsized task in Bali this week. Mr Morrison may have won a fan in former US president Donald Trump with his takes on world affairs but it cost Australia much else.

It fell to the new PM to get negotiations over trade with the European Union back on track after Mr Morrison’s refusal to take action on climate change.

Mr Albanese will capitalise on this with a planned trip to India and the expected signing of another trade deal, it was announced after a meeting with Narendra Modi in Bali.

And another leader Mr Morrison famously isolated, French President Emmanuel Macron, a key ally in the area of greatest strategic contest for Australia, the Pacific, is also back onside and was in discussions for further defence cooperation.

Where Mr Albanese has burnished our deepest alliances with climate action, Mr Morrison had a “no friends” moment at the last G20 when he was caught standing apart from other world leaders during an official photo.

The same happened a short time later at the Glasgow summit. Radical climate policy made Australia an outcast.

The Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said on Wednesday that Mr Morrison had taken courageous stands on China, but that his government had to suffer the consequences. In fact, Australia did.

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