One year of Albanese’s amazing foreign policy rebalancing act

Anthony Albanese passed the first anniversary of his prime ministership on Sunday, just as he began it. But Australia’s foreign policy over the past year has not been about staying in place.

Less than 48 hours after Scott Morrison conceded defeat in last May’s election, Mr Albanese, bearing a hastily reissued passport, jumped on a plane for Tokyo and a summit with leaders from other member nations of the so-called Quad.

One year later, his significant foreign policy achievement as Prime Minister has been a rebalancing act.

This time around, Mr Albanese and his counterparts from the US, India and Japan met in Hiroshima and, in improvised circumstances, on the sidelines of the larger Group of Seven Nations summit.

The awkwardly named Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is a grouping designed to counterbalance as China’s influence in the region rises, American power wanes, and its military footprint reorganises.

Mr Albanese has doubled down on Australia’s commitment to that purpose just months after signing the nation up to a $368 billion program to acquire nuclear-powered submarines that, most of all, locks us into the American alliance and to play a greater role in the region as part of that reorganisation.

The Quad, Mr Albanese said, stands for “an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region – a region where sovereignty is respected, and all countries large and small benefit from a regional balance that keeps the peace”.

He compared its role to a safeguard, or a check on great power competition as had applied to the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

At the same time, Mr Albanese has overseen the stabilising of Australia’s other consequential relationship, with the dominant power in the region and our largest trading power.

He broke a three-year drought in November by meeting China’s President Xi Jinping in Bali.

Last week Trade Minister Don Farrell returned from a trip to Beijing, predicting that Chinese tariffs slapped on Australian exports would be reviewed in coming weeks.

At the weekend, Mr Albanese confirmed that he would travel to Beijing to meet Mr Xi again, this time on Chinese soil.

“I’ve informed our partners that I do intend to travel to China at some time in the future,” he said

“People regard it as very positive that Australia is in dialogue with China.

“You need dialogue to get understanding.”

Much media attention focused on the cancellation of US President Joe Biden’s planned trip to Australia this week and a Quad summit to be held at the Opera House. But the consolation prize is not insignificant.

In the same year he travels to Beijing for a historically significant meeting, Mr Albanese will also receive a state reception at the White House, an honour conferred recently only on Mr Morrison and John Howard before him.

Mr Albanese’s success partly reflects the serious room for repair to Australia’s national interest left by Mr Morrison’s preoccupation with leading the world in being “tough on China”, an approach to diplomacy that reminded some of the way he played soccer against eight-year-olds.

From Gough Whitlam calling out Washington for allegedly meddling in Australian politics before he was dismissed for unrelated reasons, to the beating heaped on Kevin Rudd for supposedly not being committed to the Quad, foreign policy has proven challenging terrain for Labor prime ministers.

One year in, Australia’s most consequential relationships and its place in the world are improved while Mr Albanese is mostly unscathed.

That’s no small achievement.

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