12 July 2018




DAVID SPEERS: Penny Wong, thanks very much for your time.


SPEERS: You’ve been doing a lot of meetings while you’re in Washington, what’s the sense you are getting of how Australia is factoring, realistically, in the Trump Administration’s thinking right now?

WONG: I have had a lot of meetings, with members of the National Security Council, with Senator Lyndsey Graham, some intelligence agencies and I’ll be meeting with people from the State Department today. It is a useful opportunity to understand the thinking inside the Administration about alliances, and most importantly, engagement with the region.

Australia is working very hard at continuing to work with the Americans on what constructive engagement with the region looks like, We understand, we all understand, not only the importance of the alliance, its strategic importance, but how important US engagement in our region is to our future.

SPEERS: You mentioned the importance of alliances. It is an interesting word to use this week because we’re certainly seeing this week US alliances in Europe under strain. With the sort of language Trump is using at the NATO Summit in Brussels, is there a fear about where this President is going to take some of America’s strongest and longest alliances?

WONG: Alliances have been a topic of discussion in the meetings I’ve had, and both privately and publicly I make the same point. The first is, US alliances, its network of alliances, are one of the critical components of American power, and they are important not just for their history, not just for shared values – all of which are important – but they are intrinsic to US power. I think that is well understood, particularly across the institutions of government here in Washington.

Obviously President Trump has a long-standing consistent position around defence spending and criticisms of allies who don’t contribute 2% of GDP. That’s not a new position. But stepping back from that …

SPEERS: His rhetoric is something different though from some of his predecessors.

WONG: There’s always been a view from this President as a candidate, about the way in which he would approach discussions with alliance partners, but I want to re-emphasise one; alliances are key to American power globally, that’s a good thing. And the second; I think that is well understood in terms of the institutions here in Washington.

SPEERS: The bottom line, is there a danger, that these alliances, yes, they’re being strained, that they might break?

WONG: I don’t think so. This is a situation where there is disagreement, some strong rhetoric, but everyone understands why NATO exists. Everyone understands why ANZUS exists. Everyone understands why the US has the relationship it has with South Korea and Japan. This is well understood and historic. And of course David, as you know, differences of opinions within alliances aren’t new.

SPEERS: Nonetheless, it gets back to something you said from the very outset of the Trump Administration and that’s for Australia to think a bit more independently.

WONG: We have to always focus on what’s in Australia national interest, and we have to engage with this administration and any administration with a very clear focus on our national interest and being prepared to put to them those areas where we agree as well as those areas where we don’t agree.

The Turnbull Government sought to do that on some issues. I think it is important. We are obviously a valued friend and partner and that does means on some occasions that we will speak our mind about things we disagree on.

SPEERS: There is a lot of handwringing at conferences like this dialogue we’re at, and others, about why is it that so many voters clearly are taken by what it is that Donald Trump is saying. That the global system and structures and alliances and trading rules and so on just don’t work for them. Is that a fair point do you think? That a lot of people are fed up with the way the world is run right now?

WONG: There are a few issues there. I think the broader issue is, whether it is this president, what we have seen in Australia, what we saw in Brexit, what we see in developed economies around the world, there is a sense that some people feel that globalisation has left them behind. Some people feel that they don’t have a better world to pass on to their children and we all want better opportunities for our kids than we have for ourselves. And trade has been the target in some of those discussions, in my view, not fairly, but it has been the target. It’s not unique to the US.

From an Australian perspective, certainly from the Labor Party’s perspective, the way we think you have to deal with that is to deal with inequality and to make sure you redress inequality and you advance opportunity and there is a role for Government.

SPEERS: It’s about having the benefits of the globalisation flow?

WONG: Exactly. Shared. We want benefits shared because if they are not shared people don’t feel like they have a stake.

The second point I’d make though is that the US Presidency is a matter for the American people and we deal with whichever President, whichever Administration we have, bearing in mind always that our relationship is with the nation and that is why this alliance has been so important and it has endured.

SPEERS: How important is Australia to the US when it comes to the region we are in and China in particular?

WONG: One of the points I have put in the meetings we have been having is precisely that. That we have a unique position because of our geography and because of our understanding of the region as well as, not just because of our alliance, but our shared interests with the United States in the sort of region we want.

And that’s really what I think we need to be focussed on. We know we live in a region where China is becoming more assertive. We know we live in a region where Indonesia is developing. We know we live in a region where the economy is changing. What we do need to focus on is what sort of region we want that to be and work with. Not just the United States, which is obviously critical, but other nations of the region to ensure we continue to have the sort of region we all want – peace, stability and a system of rules to deal with disputes.

SPEERS: Just on that, how worried are you about China ignoring some of those rules? About China clearly trying to build its influence in the Pacific at the moment? We hear that it is going to be meeting with a number of small Pacific nations on the eve of the APEC Summit in PNG in a couple of months’ time. How concerning is that?

WONG: I think we need to be reasonably pragmatic about this. China is an economy that is very large. It will become even larger by the end of the decade in which we are. We have to factor that in. China sees a role for itself in the region.

Now, we ought not approach that with fear, but we should be very clear about what sort of region we want that to be. As I’ve said in relation to the Pacific, the South Pacific in particular, we don’t want to see a region where militarisation leads to greater strategic competition. I don’t think that is conducive to the sort of region we want.

So, I think the dialogue with our partners in the region is, what sort of region do we want? We certainly don’t want a region where might is right, that’s never been the way Australia has approached it.

SPEERS: And dialogue is one thing, aid is another. You have been critical over the years of the Turnbull Government’s cuts. Can you say Labor is going to restore that?

WONG: What I have said previously, and obviously this is all dependent on the fiscal situation, is that we will spend more than the Government. We are on a downward trajectory at the moment. I think that is a problem, from a soft power perspective and from an influence perspective, leaving aside, I suppose, the ethical issues of wanting to help people who are in poverty. So, if you take $11 billion out of that aid budget you are obviously going to diminish your capacity to project that influence and that assistance into your region.

SPEERS: Would you say that $11 billion that you talk about has enabled China to grow its influence?

WONG: I think that what we are seeing is, Australia, over a period of time and for a range of reasons, including the reduction in development assistance, hasn’t operated, particularly in our near region, in the way we might like.

Credit where credit is due though, I do think some of the Government’s recent moves in the Pacific have demonstrated a realisation of that and I was very happy to participate in the bipartisan delegation with Julie Bishop not long ago. Because I think it is in the country’s interests for Australia to be the natural partner for the region.

SPEERS: But you will, depending on the fiscal situation, restore..

WONG: We said we would certainly spend more. I think it would be unrealistic to think that we could restore the entirety of a very large set of cuts. This is a long process of rebuilding the development budget. I hope it can become a bipartisan process.

SPEERS: Penny Wong, good to talk with you. Thank you.

WONG: Good to be with you.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.