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Australia’s History-Making Top Diplomat Faces Down Rising China

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(Bloomberg) -- Penny Wong has already made history as both the first Asian-born and openly gay woman to become Australia’s top diplomat. Now she’s quickly confronting the nation’s most difficult geopolitical challenge in decades.

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Within days of being sworn in on May 23, Wong -- born to a Chinese Malaysian father -- rushed to Fiji to counter a rare trip to nearby Pacific island countries by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. He aimed to sign a sweeping regional deal to entrench Beijing’s influence after reaching a security agreement with the Solomon Islands that may allow naval ships to dock some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from Australia’s coast.

A trained lawyer, the 53-year-old Wong said Australian aid wouldn’t come “with strings attached, nor impose unsustainable financial burdens” -- a pointed reference to China’s agreements with developing countries around the world. She later said the security of Pacific island nations “needed to be determined by the region” and is taking a second trip, this time to Tonga and Samoa on Wednesday.

Wong’s defiant tone contrasted with China’s measured official stance since her appointment, as Beijing seeks to reset relations with Australia following the election of left-leaning Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. But her remarks also sowed the seeds for a potential clash ahead: The Communist Party-run Global Times tabloid said Wong’s statements were emblematic of Australia’s “double standards, arrogant colonialism and imperialism.”

The appointment of a foreign minister who “demonstrates the multiculturalism of Australia” could be concerning for Beijing, especially in Wong’s advocacy for Chinese Australians who are currently imprisoned in China, according to Natasha Kassam, director of the Foreign Policy program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute.

Wong has already begun to advocate on behalf of Australian Chinese writer Yang Jun, who has been detained in China for more than three years. Another Australian, Cheng Lei, has been detained since 2020 and is awaiting a verdict on national security charges after a trial in March that was held in secret.

“There’s an argument to be made that she could be even more effective in that context,” Kassam said, referring to Wong.

Already frosty relations between Beijing and Canberra deteriorated in April 2020 after former leader Scott Morrison endorsed an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. That spat had escalated into tariffs on Australian exports and Canberra’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics.

Premier Li Keqiang congratulated Albanese after his election win but the new leader has been muted in his response. Both Wong and Albanese have said it was up to China to start things off by removing restrictions on Australian goods.

Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at Lowy, said Beijing shouldn’t expect a new dawn in relations with Canberra under Albanese. All the new government might do is stop the relationship deteriorating further.

“It’s not so much a reset as putting a floor under the relationship, rescue it from free fall and turn down the level of public acrimony,” McGregor said. “But competition is the name of the game. We’re not going back to what it was.”

For more on Australian politics:

  • Australian PM’s New Cabinet Takes a Step Toward Gender Equality

  • Indigenous Inclusion Is a Focus For New Australian Government

  • Australian PM’s Labor Party Finally Gets Parliament Majority (1)

  • Hidden Economic Risks Lurk for New Australian Leader Albanese

Climate Minister

Wong was born in 1968 on the Malaysian side of Borneo island, right smack in the South China Sea. She came to Australia in 1976 when she was eight where her family settled in Adelaide, eventually entering both the University of Adelaide and the Australian Labor Party.

Wong has a history of firsts in her time in Canberra. With global warming a crucial issue for Australia’s diplomatic efforts, Wong can tap her experience of being Australia’s first ever climate minister in 2007. She made a point of mentioning the role in her first speech in the Pacific as foreign minister.

“I know the imperative that we all share to take serious action to reduce emissions and transform our economies,” Wong said last week, adding: “The triple challenges of climate, Covid and strategic contest will challenge us in new ways.”

Wong has faced difficulties with pushing the climate change agenda in the past. As climate change minister, she wasn’t able to put in place legislation to limit Australia's carbon emissions, sparking a decade of clashes over how to tackle the issue. She was also part of Australia's delegation to the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which failed to strike a major accord on how to reduce carbon emissions.

When she was in the opposition, she developed a cult status among Australians for her interrogation of government ministers at Senate hearings. Twitter is a treasure trove of pictures showing her eyebrow raised at responses to questions, prompting The Australian to once describe it as a “single arch saying more than an entire harangue.”

A Realist

A self-confessed foreign policy realist and a fiscal conservative, Wong was also finance minister in the Julia Gillard administration and took on the shadow trade portfolio after the Labor Party lost power in 2013. But she always had her eye on becoming foreign minister, according to her biography “Penny Wong: Passion and Principle.”

She has prepared for that position for the past six years as shadow foreign minister, regularly accusing Morrison’s former government of politicizing the country’s international relations. Wong described the ex-leader’s failure to prevent the Solomon Islands from signing a security pact with China as Australia’s worst foreign policy failure since World War II.

But the Labor Party, and Wong in particular, have also faced criticism for running a foreign policy too closely aligned with US goals. Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating strongly criticized Wong for supporting the AUKUS security deal with the UK and US in 2021, saying she had “neutered Labor’s traditional stance as to Australia’s right to strategic autonomy.”

Wong replied by saying she agreed with Keating on most topics, “but not this.”

Critics inside her party haven't just disagreed with her over policy. During the 2022 election campaign, Wong apologized for saying the late Senator Kimberley Kitching couldn't understand the climate crisis because she didn't have kids, while disputing claims of bullying. Kitching died in March from a suspected heart attack.

On May 21, the night of Labor’s historic election win, Wong was jubilant. When Albanese took the stage to claim his election victory, he was introduced by Wong. Together, they linked hands and held them high in front of a rapturous crowd.

With Australia’s new government facing a range of domestic issues, including rising inflation and household debt, Albanese will likely trust Wong with foreign relations while he handles crises closer to home.

“He will be relying very much on Wong,” said Michelle Grattan, a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra who has written about the country’s politics for decades. “Given the trust between them and given her experience, he wouldn’t be reluctant to do that.”

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