One of Labor’s most respected foreign policy figures has urged Bill Shorten to distance Australia from the United States if he becomes prime minister, and sign up to China’s controversial global infrastructure spending spree.
Gareth Evans, who served as foreign minister under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, also said a pivot away from America would require billions more in defence spending, and condemned Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s potential shift on Middle East policy as an “unbelievable folly” that threatened long-term relationships with key regional partners.
Australia may move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, following US president Donald Trump’s lead.
Mr Evans dubbed the Prime Minister “cloth-eared” on foreign policy and Foreign Minister Marise Payne “an invisible bit-player” in the three months since the demise of Malcolm Turnbull.
Mr Morrison’s cabinet is split on whether to relocate Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – an idea that has stoked an angry backlash from Indonesia and a number of world leaders. A decision is expected by the end of the year.
British Prime Minister Theresa May raised the issue with Mr Morrison on the weekend at the G20 summit in Argentina but it did not come up in discussions with US President Donald Trump, who moved America’s embassy to Jerusalem earlier this year.
In a major speech in Sydney on Sunday, Mr Evans said Mr Turnbull and former foreign minister Julie Bishop had done “some” positive things in office but claimed the Coalition’s overall international record was not strong.
“One of the many unhappy realities about life under the present Coalition government is that when it comes to Australia’s place in the world, protecting and advancing our national interests in the international arena, we have been punching way below our weight,” he said. “It’s time for Australia to punch not above our weight, but at the very considerable weight we already have.”
The Coalition has resisted pressure to join China’s massive Belt and Road initiative, which will create new roads, railways, ports and maritime routes in new and revived trade corridors stretching from Asia to Europe.
In a message to Labor’s frontbench, Mr Evans argued a stronger relationship with China did not mean Australia had to be Beijing’s “patsy”.
“But it does mean recognising the legitimacy of many of China’s own security and economic national interest claims, including the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative: with us being a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and being prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise.”
Mr Evans also used his speech at the Tom Uren Memorial Lecture to say Australia should focus its efforts in South East Asia on Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.
“Which means, among other things, that just about the last thing we should be doing is putting any of those relationships at risk by the kind of unbelievable folly involved in Morrison’s Jerusalem embassy thought bubble.”
Mr Evans did not call for Australia to walk away from the ANZUS military alliance but said an end to loyally following the United States was long overdue.
“The bottom line is that neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that, for all the insurance we might think we have bought with our past support, the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat.
“While that was almost certainly also the reality under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, and it should not be assumed that anything would be very different in a post-Trump era.”
Mr Evans, the Australian National University chancellor, conceded less reliance on America would put pressure on Australia’s defence budget.
“It does entail, in military terms, building defence capability that involves not only more bucks than we are usually comfortable spending but getting a bigger bang for each of them. It certainly means maximising our capacity to protect our shores and maritime environment from hostile intrusion, but also means having a capacity to engage in military operations wider afield if there is a good national interest reason for doing so.”