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Penny Wong Wants Australia to Be More Than a Supporting Player

Can the new foreign minister escape the slipstream of the superpowers?

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong attends the Pacific Islands Forum.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong attends the Pacific Islands Forum.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong listens to a panel discussion during the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Fiji, on July 12. WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images
By , a principal honorary fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

In 2017, foreign-policy analyst Allan Gyngell published a systematic history of Australian foreign policy. He called his book Fear of Abandonment—a potent summation of the mindset of this middle power, traditionally seen as a European outpost uncomfortable with its position on Asia’s doorstep.

Australia, Gyngell argued, has always conceived itself as dependent for security on great powers: first Britain and then the United States. Britain abandoned Australia during World War II and, as a result, Australia turned to the United States. But now, the fear of abandonment has never been more keenly felt. Australia has watched the United States under former U.S. President Barack Obama promise to pivot to Asia, and then fail to deliver. Then came the hard-to-read chaos of the Trump administration. For the last 20 years, Australia has been attempting a difficult balancing act between the United States and China, its largest trading partner. Gyngell argued that the “slipstream of the superpowers” was an increasingly dangerous place for Australia to be.

Now, things may be changing. Australia has a new, singular foreign minister, Penny Wong, and a Labor Party government elected in May this year. In a series of keynote speeches to regional leaders and at home, Wong has signaled that she wants to change the way Australia is seen in the world—and for Australians to become “more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics.”

In 2017, foreign-policy analyst Allan Gyngell published a systematic history of Australian foreign policy. He called his book Fear of Abandonment—a potent summation of the mindset of this middle power, traditionally seen as a European outpost uncomfortable with its position on Asia’s doorstep.

Australia, Gyngell argued, has always conceived itself as dependent for security on great powers: first Britain and then the United States. Britain abandoned Australia during World War II and, as a result, Australia turned to the United States. But now, the fear of abandonment has never been more keenly felt. Australia has watched the United States under former U.S. President Barack Obama promise to pivot to Asia, and then fail to deliver. Then came the hard-to-read chaos of the Trump administration. For the last 20 years, Australia has been attempting a difficult balancing act between the United States and China, its largest trading partner. Gyngell argued that the “slipstream of the superpowers” was an increasingly dangerous place for Australia to be.

Now, things may be changing. Australia has a new, singular foreign minister, Penny Wong, and a Labor Party government elected in May this year. In a series of keynote speeches to regional leaders and at home, Wong has signaled that she wants to change the way Australia is seen in the world—and for Australians to become “more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics.”

The key shift is not so much to do with the aims of Australia’s foreign policy; commitment to supporting a rules-based order has been bipartisan for decades. Nor is the centrality of Australia’s alliance with the United States in doubt. Rather, Wong brings a new mode of vigorous activism.

In government for just four months, Wong has already overseen an extraordinary surge in international engagement. The day after being sworn in, new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Wong were in Tokyo for the Quad summit, quickly followed by Albanese’s first visit as Prime Minister to Indonesia. Meanwhile, in the administration’s first 100 days, Wong made four separate trips to the Pacific (Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, and July’s Pacific Islands Forum summit) and three trips to Southeast Asia (Vietnam and Malaysia, followed by Singapore and Indonesia twice).

Wong references her background in making her case, preempting a still-circulating idea of Australia as a racist white neocolonial outpost. It is time to drop Australia’s championing of the Anglosphere, she has said: “Foreign policy starts with who we are.” Australia, she told the Pacific Islands Forum, was a country with 270 ancestries, including the world’s oldest continuous culture. “This gives us the capacity to reach into every corner of the world and say, ‘We share common ground.’”

There’s no question the foreign minister’s agenda is ambitious. She hopes to find common interests with proximate small and middle powers to help create a “peaceful, prosperous region in which sovereignty is respected.” Ultimately, she hopes this will shape the way the world’s superpowers—China and the United States—behave. Australia, she says, is in the “influence game,” and it must use all the tools of statehood to address the most uncertain time in its recent history.


Australia's Penny Wong at a conference in 2009.
Australia's Penny Wong at a conference in 2009.

Wong, then a senator and minister for climate change and water, attends a Labor Party National Conference in Sydney on July 30, 2009. Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Wong’s personal history binds together central themes in Australia’s lineage. She is, on both sides of her family, the product of British colonialism and its impact on the region. On her mother’s side, she is as deeply rooted in Australia as is possible for someone not of Aboriginal ancestry. Her great-great-great-grandparents arrived in what was to become the colony of South Australia in 1836 as refugees from the exigencies of the Industrial Revolution.

On her father’s side, she is the descendant of Cantonese Chinese who were recruited as agricultural laborers by the British North Borneo Company to labor on the vast tobacco and timber plantations as well as in the tin mines.

Her Hakka grandmother, Lai Fung Shim, singlehandedly ensured the survival of the family line during the brutal Japanese occupation of Borneo during World War II. Francis Wong, Penny Wong’s father, was a beneficiary of the Colombo Plan, a postwar initiative under which academically distinguished Asians were sponsored to study in Australia. He enrolled in architecture at the University of Adelaide, which—as Wong put it in a speech delivered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the end of June—“meant a charming young Malaysian man could meet a bold young Australian woman.”

The couple married in 1967. Staying in Australia was impossible. The country still operated under the White Australia policy, which effectively prevented Asian people from emigrating to Australia. The policy was substantially dismantled by the then-Holt government in 1966 but was eliminated only in the 1970s. The Wongs settled in his hometown of Kota Kinabalu. North Borneo had been a British protectorate when he had left for South Australia. By the time he returned in 1967, and when his daughter was born in 1968, it was part of the new nation of Malaysia.

The marriage broke down when Wong was about 7 years old. Her mother took her and her brother back to Adelaide. They were the only Asian faces in their suburban primary school. The constant racism she suffered and the strength she developed in surviving it became a defining feature of her personality. As she put it in an interview for the biography I wrote of her, published in 2019, she found a steely resolve. “I learned to be steady and still, even when it felt very messy and difficult.”

It is this sense of the nation as part of its region—diverse and incorporating multiple ethnic and personal histories—that she now describes as central to an effective foreign policy.

Only when then-Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1992 gave a landmark speech where he declared that the fall of Singapore in World War II was as important to the Australian story as Gallipoli—the World War I campaign marked as a national day of remembrance in Australia—did Wong feel Australia was her home. Wong told me in interviews for her biography that it was after that speech, when her plane touched down in Adelaide after a visit to her father in Kota Kinabalu, that she said to herself for the first time: “This is my country now. This is my place.”

It is this sense of the nation as part of its region—diverse and incorporating multiple ethnic and personal histories—that she now describes as central to an effective foreign policy.

Wong took the opposition foreign affairs portfolio in 2016, having been shadow trade minister before that. Since then, she has been preparing. Before the 2019 election—which the Australian Labor Party was expected to win—she was described by Gyngell as likely to be the best-prepared foreign minister Australia had ever had. She won an award in 2019 for political leadership: the McKinnon Prize. The judges noted that she had achieved a rare thing: policy innovation while in opposition.

The election of the Albanese government, and with it, Wong’s ascent to government, enabled a partial thaw in the diplomatic freeze China had imposed on the Morrison government that preceded it. Wong met her Chinese opposite, Wang Yi, at the conclusion of the G-20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bali in July and again on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September. At the July meeting, she told Wang, “Australia will speak as necessary on the issues that matter to our nation and our people—we will do so calmly and consistently.” This was an implicit critique of the bellicosity both of China and of the previous Australian government.

At the U.N. General Assembly meeting this month, she urged China to remove punitive trade measures against Australia and to use its influence with Russia to help end the Ukraine war. “I think it is a long road in which many steps will have to be taken by both parties to a more stable relationship,” she told journalists after the meeting. Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying it was willing to “properly resolve differences” with Australia and meet “halfway.” This was a distinct shift of tone on both sides.

Wong used her speech to the U.N. General Assembly to reference the Ukraine war as “an attack on all smaller countries. It is an assertion that a larger country is entitled to subjugate a smaller neighbor.” This, she said, could not be “normalized and it cannot be minimized.” She backed reform of the U.N. Security Council to ensure greater permanent representation for Africa, Latin America, and Asia—including India and Japan—and lobbied for Australia to be given a nonpermanent seat on the council from 2029 to 2030.

The partial thaw with China has been widely reported as an early success in Wong’s foreign-policy approach. When it comes to Australia’s relationship with China, the things she has refrained from saying are as important as her statements. She neither endorsed nor criticized U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan, which a little over two months after Wong took office. The visit was a matter for the United States, she said. But she described China’s response, particularly the firing of ballistic missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, as excessive, and called for “restraint and de-escalation.”

As Wong has said in the past, the way you de-escalate is: “More strategy, less politics. Talk less, do more.”

In the days after these comments, every serious current affairs program in Australia sought her out for an interview. She declined almost all of them—thereby ducking the question on the minds of most journalists, which was whether Australia, if push came to shove, would join the United States in a conflict with China over Taiwan. The former government’s defense minister, Peter Dutton (now leader of the opposition), said last November that it was “inconceivable” that Australia would not. Wong has expressed no view.

As Wong has said in the past, the way you de-escalate is: “More strategy, less politics. Talk less, do more.” To this end, she has urged the leaders of Pacific Island nations and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to join Australia in attempting to shape a “settling point” between the United States and China.

She has also approvingly referenced a term used by former Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, who argued for Australia and other countries of the region to seek “managed strategic competition” between China and the United States “within a set of minimum guardrails to reduce the risk of escalation, crisis, conflict and war.”

The previous government behaved as though the choice between the United States and China was already made. In particular, the so-called 2021 AUKUS agreement—in which Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom entered a partnership on defense technology with nuclear-powered submarines as the centerpiece of the agreement—was widely interpreted as tying Australia’s future defense to the United States’ ambitions of confining Chinese expansion.

Now, with the geostrategic environment even more dire, it will be more than a decade before the new submarines are in the water. Some commentators are suggesting it might never happen. Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, has suggested that Australia should instead adopt a “hedgehog” or, more appropriately to the region, an “echidna” defense strategy: able to hold off an adversary but abandoning ambitions to use military force elsewhere.

As Wong said in one of her first speeches after the election to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, she is far from the first Australian foreign minister to recognize the importance of relationships with Southeast Asia. “But I am the first to make these statements as an Australian foreign minister who is from Southeast Asia,” she said. And it was this region, Wong made clear on coming to power, that was her priority.


Australian foreign minister PennyWong and her younger brother James Wong eat at the the locally famous Kuo Man restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
Australian foreign minister PennyWong and her younger brother James Wong eat at the the locally famous Kuo Man restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

Wong and her younger brother visit the locally famous Kuo Man Restaurant to eat their favorite childhood breakfast of fish congee, handmade noodles, and fish paste balls in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, on June 30. Julia Chan/Malay Mail

On April 19, the Solomons Islands’ government under Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare signed a security pact with China. This development had apparently taken Australia’s Morrison government by surprise, and it precipitated a crisis in which the international community questioned Australia’s effectiveness in the Pacific—its natural sphere of influence. During the election campaign, Wong described the signing of the pact as “the worst Australian policy failure in the Pacific since the Second World War,” and the controversy helped undermine the Morrison government’s claim to superiority on national security.

In recent years, as Australia became a laggard in climate change policy, it lost credibility with Pacific Island nations. For those island nations, rising sea levels are an existential issue—more important than the competition between superpowers. The Albanese government was elected on a core policy of more ambitious climate change action, committing to a minimum emissions reduction target of 43 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.

This was the context for Wong’s first overseas trips after becoming minister for foreign affairs. At the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji in July, she communicated a subtle message: avoiding telling the Pacific Island nations what to do but instead suggesting that they needed to act regionally to decide matters for themselves—together as a “family.” It was encouraging a kind of peer pressure, elevating the sometimes-shaky Pacific Islands Forum (Kiribati had withdrawn) as a venue at which the concerns of the other Pacific Island nations—many of whom would prefer not to choose between the superpowers—could be brought to bear on the China-friendly Sogavare and others. Without explicitly mentioning China, she said Australia was “a partner that won’t come with strings attached nor impose unsustainable financial burdens. We are a partner that won’t erode Pacific priorities or institutions.”

Wong acknowledged at the forum that on climate change, Australia had “neglected its responsibility … disrespecting Pacific nations in their struggle to adapt to what is an existential threat” under the previous government. She promised that would change with the establishment of an Australia Pacific Climate Partnership to support climate-related infrastructure and energy projects in Pacific countries and East Timor. Meanwhile, she gained the support of leaders from Australia and the Pacific Islands to pitch a proposal to co-host the U.N. climate change summit in 2024.

She proposes that the regional forums of the Asia-Pacific exercise agency in seeking a “settling point” between the United States and China.

This is Wong’s “listen first” kind of diplomacy, what she has in the past described as meeting people where they are rather than where you want them to be. It is far from easy. The Pacific Islands continue to push the Albanese government for more action on climate change, for example.

When it comes to the countries of Southeast Asia, the existing regional forums are more established and robust. Wong has emphasized the “centrality” of ASEAN, a group Rudd has described as the “swing state” in the battle for regional dominance between China and the United States. As Wong said when still in opposition, “The countries of Southeast Asia have made clear they don’t want to choose between the great powers—but they want to exercise their own agency in how the region is being reshaped.”

In June, Wong conducted a made-for-media return to Kota Kinabalu, complete with photo opportunities with her Malaysian family and eating fish ball juk and noodles in the cafe she loved as a child. The message was explicit: This was her story, but it was also typical of contemporary Australia’s story.

In Kuala Lumpur, she described ASEAN as the “center of the Indo-Pacific.” ASEAN’s strength, she said, “lies in its ability to speak for the region and to balance regional powers.” This is the context in which she proposes that the regional forums of the Asia-Pacific exercise agency in seeking a “settling point” between the United States and China.

She first articulated the concept in September 2019, still in opposition, at a speech to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. She said U.S. leadership would be “most effective when it is conceived in terms of leading a community of nations, with all that entails.” Beijing, too, should recognize “that most of us in the region are not comfortable with an authoritarian China becoming the predominant power.” The reality was, she said, that “neither the United States nor China will be able to exert undisputed primacy. They must be prepared to live with each other as a major power.”

She also said a “settling point” would mean the United States embracing a multipolar future for the region “with countries like Indonesia, India, and Japan playing increasingly important leadership roles in the region.” Wong has repeated those ideas in several speeches since, though the language has been more subtle since taking office. A “settling point” is still mentioned, but the emphasis has shifted to “strategic equilibrium.”

Penny Wong celebrates with Australian Labour Party Leader Anthony Albanese during a victory celebration after winning the 2022 general election.
Penny Wong celebrates with Australian Labour Party Leader Anthony Albanese during a victory celebration after winning the 2022 general election.

Wong celebrates with Albanese, along with his family, during a victory celebration after winning the 2022 general election in Sydney on May 21. WENDELL TEODORO/AFP via Getty Images

Given public opinion polls in Australia, which suggest the Albanese government has increased its popularity since its election win, Wong is likely to have at least two three-year terms to enact and develop her foreign-policy approach.

But can it work?

Perhaps it is optimistic in this time of bellicose competing narratives to suppose that middle powers can have the agency Wong seeks. There is a strand in Australian foreign-policy commentary that doubts whether the United States is really committed to the region—that it might well conclude that its interests are not essentially involved and that it will leave and accept that it will become part of China’s sphere of influence.

If Wong is successful, the question about Australia’s choice—between its ally and its trading partner—will move beyond a binary.

Scholar Hugh White has suggested that the battle is already effectively over and that China has won, saying Australia should tell the United States to surrender Taiwan to Beijing and then begin to talk to China about its role in the new hegemony.

On the other hand, foreign-policy scholars agree that Australia does have influence with the United States. As CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Michael Green wrote: “the strategic community on Asia policy in DC is pretty small … and also very impressionable. … If there are good ideas from trusted partners like Australia, they go right to the top.”

If Wong is successful, the question about Australia’s choice—between its ally and its trading partner—will move beyond a binary. When still in opposition, she said the Labor Party’s policy would instead involve “continually deciding for us … a disrupted world is nonlinear, and for that reason, it is not only option-rich. It is choice- and decision-rich.”

If Wong is successful, Australia will have claimed agency in the region, allied to but not necessarily always merely following the United States. It will have changed the way it is perceived and how it sees itself. It will have helped shape the behavior of regional forums as well as global superpowers. Perhaps Wong will have even contributed to avoiding war.

Margaret Simons is a journalist and principal honorary fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She is also the author of a 2019 biography on Penny Wong, titled Penny Wong: Passion and Principle. Twitter: @MargaretSimons

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