Labor defence spokesman Richard Marles says Australia faces “security anxieties” with China and has labelled Trump administration policies “repugnant” amid an internal foreign policy dispute.
Mr Marles’ speech at the University of Oxford followed the release of Labor’s Future Asia policy — led by NSW MPs Chris Bowen and Jason Clare — and a push by Penny Wong not to view China’s Belt Road Initiative with “reflexive negativity”.
The Australian can reveal Labor right MPs outside of NSW want Mr Marles to take a more robust view of China and have expressed concerns about Labor moving away from the current government position on the communist nation’s global infrastructure project. While Mr Marles, like Mr Bowen and Senator Wong, said the Belt Road Initiative should be considered only on a case-by-case basis, he labelled China’s initiative as “a vision of foreign influence”.
“The Belt Road Initiative is a clearer expression of a vision of foreign influence than any other made during my adult life,” Mr Marles said at the Blavatnik School of Government.
“While Labor is open to the opportunities presented by the Belt Road Initiative, it is critical Australia proceed only on a case-by-case basis and in our national interest.”
Mr Marles did not repeat Mr Bowen’s suggestion Labor would be open to linking the Chinese initiative with the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and said China’s actions in the South China Sea were a “cause for anxiety”.
“From where Australia sits, the peaceful rise of China is just fine … but that only happens if the rise of China occurs within a global, rules-based order, with China as a contributor to that order,” he said.
Mr Marles, a senior adviser to Bill Shorten, said Australia should co-operate with like-minded democracies in Asia to balance the “security anxieties we face with China”. His comment came after Senator Wong said Australia should not see China through the “lens of risk management”.
Australia has declined to formally sign up to the Belt Road Initiative, and has expressed concerns about the transparency of tendering, suggesting it could leave weak nations in serious debt.
In his speech, Mr Marles attacked US President Donald Trump and said it was difficult for him as a defender of the alliance. “Pro-American advocates like myself are now in a position where on certain issues we will need to be deeply critical of the US,” he said. “An immigration system which overtly seeks to discriminate on the basis of religion is clearly repugnant.”
He said Mr Trump’s Twitter diplomacy was “at best utterly ineffective and at worst highly dangerous”. But Mr Marles said he still had faith that the US would play a global role and believed the American military presence might even increase.
Labor’s policy forum, dominated by the left, is to meet on November 17 and frontbenchers are in the middle of formulating policy programs to take to the party’s national conference next year.
Labor is looking at formulating a substantive agenda in order to increase Australian leadership in the South Pacific region.
This could involve such initiatives as defence exchange programs, with personnel from the Papua New Guinea and Fijian militaries taking up roles alongside the ADF. It could also lead to programs aimed at increasing the presence of Australian public servants in smaller Pacific nations.
The Australian government has a large development presence in the Pacific and has provided patrol boats to island nations to combat drug and human trafficking and illegal fishing.
But the Labor Party is concerned that the region does not have a strong public profile in Australia and is not seen as strategically important.