Penny: ‘Our future is in this region’
Published on: Sunday, July 24, 2022
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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Penny being interviewed by Lin Xueling of Channel Network Asia Singapore.
SOME journalist ask blunt questions: “Minister: Do you see China as your enemy?” 

Next: “Australia and China, friends or foes?” 

Next: “Australia still goes for being America’s deputy sheriff?” 

Yes, no holds barred!

Maybe it fits the English idiom called ‘shooting from the hip’, in its positive sense – no beating about the bush.

Shooting brutally honest questions direct to Penny Wong by Singapore Channel Network Asia veteran presenter Lin Xueling.

But if you read Penny’s response, thank goodness, she is unfazed, and charitable! 

We leave it to the readers to read what she said and what they think. 

A new rhetoric – Come back to what everybody wants 

But to whet your appetite a little, she changed the conflict ridden rhetoric characteristic of her predecessors to a fair dinkum rhetoric sympathetic to the interest and concern of Asean people and the region! 

She tells Lin: Come back to what we all want – stability, peace, prosperity, respect, security in Asia, Asean, sovereignty, partnership, predictable trade, mutual interest, work together to avoid dangerous escalation of ‘strategic competition’ or the ongoing struggle for global power. 

Don’t ask the wrong questions that may actually escalate deadly power struggle.

Penny meets Singaporean Premier Lee Hsien Loong. 

Very thoughtful and sensible Foreign Minister. The region is lucky in this hour of need. A really welcomed new voice from a Middle Power! 

But ask this question: Why did the new Labor Government so quickly picked Kota Kinabalu born Penny their Foreign Minister in whom many people are proud of?

Observers say having an Asian Australian as Australia’s top diplomat is a sign of Australia shifting the foreign policy to Asia. Her opinion of Asean?

This is the ‘Centre of stability’! Keep the stability and peace.

Lin Xueling (Channel Network Asia): Penny Wong, welcome to In Conversation.

Penny Wong: It’s great to be here

Lin (CNA): Minister, do you see China as your enemy? 

PW: No, I think we kind of recognise the role China plays in the global economy and the message to the Chinese people and the benefits from extraordinary development in China. What we do have interest in is the region and the world in which there is peace, prosperity in which sovereignty is a state good, and critically, where disputes are not resolved by power and size but by reference to laws and norms the international community have agreed that gives stability and enables predictability.

Lin: And do you feel China is not doing that? 

PW: We are focussed on the sort of region we want, we have made our views clear, for example, China’s decisions to what we consider as coercive economic measures on us but China is not going anywhere and the new Australian government has made it very clear, we are open to agreement but the bilateral relationship with China is not the only thing which is important to us. What is most important to us is the region in which we live which is why I am here again in Southeast Asia and why we spend so much time since we were elected, to engage with partners here globally and also in the Pacific in Southeast Asia.

Lin: Australia’s relation with China is terribly important to us in Southeast Asia. Does it mean we are going to have and easier time of getting into Australia?

PW: Well we have a very good trade agreement which has a very difficult acronym – ANZCERTA, Australia New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement ( one of the most comprehensive bilateral agreements in existence which covers Trans-Tasman trade in goods such as agricultural products and the first to include free trade in services), we are looking to upgrade that. It is actually one of the most successful trade agreements. 

Lin: For sons and daughters who want to go to Australia to study, is that something to become easier under this new administration 

PW: Well, I hope we have more international students coming back to Australia. Obviously Covid has made that much more difficult but we are seeing a lot more coming back. I tell you one of the things that in Malaysia people spoke to me about because we have a lot of Malaysians coming out to Australia one of the benefits they see in Australia is a welcoming and safe community and I hope that reputation and experience is the overwhelming majority of the students. 

Lin: Is the Administration in Canberra looking for a reset with everybody, with China, with Southeast Asia? 

Stabilise, not reset

PW: I think the better term to use in relation to the relationship with China is stabilise rather than reset. I think it will be in our mutual interest for there to be greater stability in relationship. Ultimately as I said prior to the election whoever wins to govern Australia there are structural differences because here we are and our interest that will have to be managed by whichever is the government and by this government in the context of the relationship with China. But I think it is important to not look at the region from the prism (viewpoint) of China. The region is where we see our future, economic future, our economic prosperity ad our security. The famous Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating once said ‘We get our Security in Asia not from Asia‘ (Keating was known to believe Australia could do great things as part of Asia). That’s the approach in today’s world that we also take which is why you’ll see us engaging so closely not just with Singapore but with Indonesia, Malaysia and the other countries. 

Penny Wong

Lin: Some people once proposed Asean membership for Australia. Is that something you would like to embark on to the table?

PW: We are very pleased that we are a comprehensive strategic partner of Asean. In fact in one of the early visit I made to Southeast Asia which was to Jakarta with the Prime Minister we also went to the Asean Secretariat and spoke not only to the Secretary General but to the Permanent Representative about how we move forward the comprehensive strategic partnership but really give it much more weight.

Lin: But not membership? 

Asean Centre of stable region 

I think we are dialogue partners. We are comprehensive strategic partners and we will continue to engage very closely but if your question what really underlies this Asean centrality which I think it is we are strong supporters and deeply committed to Asean centrality. In fact the speech which I am giving in Singapore we talk about what that means. We recognise that both geographically but also geopolitically that Asean it is the centre of a stable region but also it means that we recognise the strength of Asean has been to deal with any of the disputes but also Asean deal with external powers in the world. And we see the role we have. We are only a middle power, we are not a super power engaging with Asean as an entity, part of a country of Southeast Asia but also provider of strategic equilibrium which enables, put bluntly and very simply – Asean is the centre of the region and if we are to have a region which is prosperous, stable in which sovereignty is respected, Asean is key to that. 

Lin: Australia is supposedly to have this shared future with Asean. Why is that the recent security packs are with countries which are thousands of km away? If you look at AUKUS these caused some disquiet among the Southeast Asian capitals. Why have these security agreements some may say? 

Won’t focus a lot on Aukus

Let’s remember our most long standing security partnerships is here in Southeast Asia with the Five Power Defence Arrangement (composed of Commonwealth countries UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore). That presaged and continues the sort of arrangement you are talking about. We know we are living in an era of strategic competition. Southeast Asia is no stranger to power competition. In fact the history of Southeast Asia is one in which the region has had to negotiate and traverse great power competition through many points in history. 

But we see the Quad arrangement as contributory to the sort of strategic equilibrium that will benefit the region, not define it but will benefit. And in terms of Aukus, I don’t think I want to focus a lot on that. Australia has a submarine capability, we are looking to replace that. 

There are many countries in the region that already had nuclear powered submarines, some of them have nuclear armed capabilities, we do not seek that capability, we simply are looking at an old capability with a new capability and we will do so with full transparency with our partners and we have to respect our non-proliferation obligations in which we had really strong record.

Lin: What about some commentators who say Australia is still going to play this special role for the US that the country is America’s deputy sheriff? 

PW: I think that’s not the way we see ourselves. We are allied but we act on our national interest, we see ourselves a strong ally of the United States and ultimately Australia makes decisions in its national interest. 

Lin: You are the first Asian born Australian Foreign Minister and you have been talking to the Vietnamese, Malaysian and now Singaporean Foreign Ministers, how do you represent your security concerns that you have to your counterparts?

Differences, yes, but ultimately all want same things

We do not get distracted by different agendas, different views but ultimately whatever the differences we might have, whatever our priorities, ultimately we do want similar things in terms of characteristics because we understand the fundamental characteristics are essentially security and economic. But I would make the point why I talk about my background. Actually it is not about me, it’s actually about my country, the country to which I now belong in which one in two is either born overseas or the parents are born overseas. That is how profoundly different about who we are just as our indigenous peoples are First Nations Australians hence something profoundly important. So one of the commitments I made before the election and I am determined as Foreign Minister to make my best effort is to project the reality of One Australia to the region and to the world. 

Lin: It may be said or some would say that Australia does not have historically that  wonderful track record?

The most successful multi-cultural story on planet

Now I am the Foreign Minister, I have been the Finance Minister and that says something about our country Australia and how we have developed and our history, in a bipartisan and collective basis rejected the White Australia policy which was in force for seven decades and collectively apologised to the First Nations Peoples for the wrongs we have done and with the communities who elected this government further steps will be taken on reconciliation with our First Nations Peoples. The story of Australia is a multi-cultural nation that I think is the most successful multi-cultural stories on the planet – a modern dynamic country which is so focussed on what we can do in this world and ray on our heritage who we are. That is the story I want to tell the world.   

Lin: The framing of Australia and China – ‘friend or foe’ has been out. Generally it has been used a lot. Is that damaging to the relationship, rather than looking at the specific action?

Wrong question: Are you with us or against us?

That’s a good question. One of the things Singapore been lifted is you have very acute strategic thinkers, politicians and academics alike and I have certainly benefited from engagement reading some of the things written and said and this comes back to what I earlier said – the point about the region and I think if you focus on asking ‘are you with us or against us’, this is the wrong question. You also add to the risks associated with a more competitive environment (strategic competition) in which we live in and we understand we live in rising strategic competition (the struggle for power between established world powers and rising powers) and we have to work together to avert that from escalating.

Home sweet home: Noodle soup breakfast at Sunny Garden in Kota Kinabalu. 

Penny meeting her Malaysian counterpart Datuk Seri Saifuddin Abdullah. 

Lin: That must be very difficult?

PW: It is very difficult. One of the points I am making, instead of a ‘friend or foe’ frame, come back to this question instead: what do we want? You may not agree with how Australia handle something but you would agree with trade agreements that is predictable. 

Lin: So ‘Friend or Foe’ between Australia and China?

PW: I don’t use that language, we want a region where sovereignty is respected, we want a region where power and size do not determine outcomes. We want a region and the world where trade, food security, economic management are not weaponised as strategic purposes. And I actually think Singapore, Indonesia Malaysia want the same thing.


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December 20, 2014