Has Australia Become the Weak Link on Russia?
Australia may still be an ally, but the world does not need another Germany, willing to appease Russia for commercial or ideological gain.
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA—For decades, Australia was a reliable ally to the United States and the West. While European countries prioritized trade with China over concerns about the threats the Chinese Communist Party posed, successive Australian governments understood the danger and acted to counter them. Australia was among the first countries to ban Huawei’s participation in its 5G network due to both alleged security backdoors and concerns about Huawei’s record with regard to intellectual property rights.
Nor has Australia only acted commercially. The Australian military was a formidable force in both Afghanistan and Iraq. While the Bush administration trumpeted NATO’s participation in Afghanistan and a “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, the reality is few countries put their forces in harm’s way. Australia (and Great Britain) was an exception. Nor was Australia merely a follower; Canberra took the lead on peacekeeping or police operations in Fiji, East Timor, and the Solomon Islands. While Australia did drop the ball diplomatically in the Pacific, it did subsidize the Solomon Islands to the tune of almost $60 million annually, long before Beijing simply outbid Canberra in an effort to advance China’s military position and undermine that of democratic nations in the region.
Australia’s traditional bipartisan willingness to punch above its weight goes further. Ten years ago, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and President Barack Obama agreed to station 200 U.S. marines in Darwin, a number that has increased more than ten-fold as the China threat has grown. Australia’s willingness to host the marines is of crucial importance given that they represent a first line of defense should China go on the offensive in the broader region.
More recently, Australia has purchased U.S. nuclear submarines in order to address the China threat. And, of course, Australia not only is a pillar of the AUKUS trilateral defense pact, but also the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, often simply called the Quad, that brings India and Japan into the diplomatic mix. Across American administrations and in the corridors of power, diplomats and politicos debated not the strength of ties between Washington and Canberra, but rather if Australia or Canada was America’s top, most trusted ally.
Unfortunately, such bilateral trust may now be at risk. On May 23, 2022, Anthony Albanese became Australia’s thirty-first prime minister, ending nearly a decade of Liberal (conservative) government. Both Albanese and Penny Wong, his foreign minister, came from a hard-left background. As a student leader in Young Labor, for example, Albanese led a faction that worked fist-in-glove with the Communist Party of Australia and Cold War-era radical anti-disarmament groups. Wong, for her part, participated in the Social Workers Party’s Committee in Solidarity with Central America and the Caribbean that supported violent socialist revolutionaries in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other Central American and Caribbean countries.
During their respective election campaigns, of course, both promised moderation and, certainly, on issues regarding China, they delivered. Many rank-and-file members of the Labor Party, however, have pivoted further to the left in a way similar to the rise of the progressive caucus within the Democratic Party. And, as with American progressives, an irrational focus on if not animosity toward Israel has broader ramifications.
In June 2022, for example, Australia surprised the State Department when it refused to sign on to a U.S.-led statement approved by twenty-two other countries that criticized an open-ended and unbalanced UN Human Rights Council inquiry into Israel but omitted discussion of Hamas and its indiscriminate rocket fire into Israel. This did not directly impact Russia, but it did signal cracks in unity that Russia and fellow revisionists seek to exploit.
More recently, Albanese and Wong reversed previous Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to recognize West Jerusalem, an area within the 1949 armistice lines and not legally disputed. While the intention of Albanese and Wong may have been to virtue signal to a fringe constituency, the net effect was to encourage rejectionists like Hamas, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regime in Iran that they might find Western support to challenge Israel’s sovereignty over areas not previously disputed.
That might simply be an issue for Australians had it not been for Albanese and Wong timing their decision to come less than a week after Palestinian chairman Mahmoud Abbas gave a full-throated endorsement to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Albanese and Wong are too sophisticated not to recognize the implications of such timing but, on the off chance this was amateur hour, the ramifications upon the perceptions of Australian diplomacy are as great.
Albanese and Wong now signal that they will continue to rebalance Australia’s policy and may even unilaterally recognize Palestinian statehood. Perhaps they believe this is smart politics, but it is bad diplomacy. It would not only signal to the Palestinian leadership that it need not abide by its Oslo commitment to end terrorism, but it would also reaffirm the logic of Putin’s unilateral recognition of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Luhansk, and Donetsk. In effect, Albanese and Wong now squander decades of diplomatic capital, cast moral clarity aside, and inadvertently undermine the international coalition of democracies against Russia.
To be fair, the developing problems between Washington and Canberra are not the fault of Australia alone. Australians across the political spectrum remark upon the apparent disinterest Caroline Kennedy, Biden’s appointee as ambassador, has in any substantive diplomatic engagement. Calls go unanswered and Australian inquiries are left ignored. Kennedy may have tight Democratic connections and be a high-profile figure, but her tendency to treat Australia as a vacation destination rather than a key strategic ally comes at a growing cost.
Australia may still be an ally, but the world does not need another Germany, willing to appease Russia for commercial or ideological gain. It is time Biden has a long talk with Albanese. The U.S.-Australia relationship and the trust born of decades of consultation are too important to lose. Albanese and Wong may believe they are simply playing domestic politics but creating precedents that empower Putin is a price they should not pay.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.