The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has arrived in Tokyo for high-level security talks with the US, India and Japan amid a fresh political storm over whether the US would take military action to defend Taiwan from China.
Albanese and his foreign minister, Penny Wong, touched down on Monday night for a meeting of the quadrilateral security dialogue (Quad) which will focus on measures aimed at curbing China’s assertiveness in the region.
On the eve of the visit, Chinese state media put Albanese on notice that his approach to the Quad meeting would be viewed as a test of his “political wisdom” after the “anti-China strategy” pursued by the Morrison government.
But the call for a reset in Australia’s strained ties with its largest trading partner will likely be immediately tested after the US president, Joe Biden, indicated on Monday the US would be prepared to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression.
Speaking in Tokyo alongside the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, the US president was asked: “Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”
“Yes,” Biden said.
“You are?” the reporter asked again. “That’s the commitment we made,” Biden said, in remarks that were seen as a departure from the traditional US position of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan.
The comments put Albanese in a difficult position on one of the most vexed questions of foreign policy as he flags a diplomatic reset with Australia’s most important allies and stresses the importance of Australia’s partnership with the US.
Just six months ago, Labor criticised the then defence minister, Peter Dutton, for telling the Australian newspaper: “It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action” in Taiwan.
Wong, then the shadow foreign affairs spokesperson, characterised this as out of step with the US policy of strategic ambiguity, while agreeing that the risk of conflict over Taiwan had increased.
“We are sticking to the long-held bipartisan position on Taiwan, even if Mr Dutton is walking away from it,” Wong said at the time.
Ahead of the Quad meeting, Albanese said he expected the relationship with China to “remain a difficult one” but the government would pursue Australia’s national interest without politicising national security.
“The relationship with China will remain a difficult one, I said that before the election [and] that has not changed.
“It is China that has changed, not Australia, and Australia should always stand up for our values and we will in a government that I lead.”
Biden’s remarks – which are similar to those made last year that the White House later walked back – come as the Quad members prepare to canvass details of the US’s newly announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (Ipef) as part of a broader strategy for the region aimed at countering China.
Albanese will have one-on-one meetings with Biden, Kishida and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, following the Quad summit on Tuesday afternoon, all of which are expected to focus on China.
The Chinese state media tabloid The Global Times published an opinion piece that questioned whether Australia’s policy on China under Albanese would differ from the “reckless” anti-China stance of his predecessor.
“His [Albanese’s] attendance at the Quad summit … is expected to be the first test of the political wisdom of the new Australian government, especially on whether it could get rid of the shadow of previous Scott Morrison’s anti-China strategy that deeply hurt its own economy and trade,” the newspaper said.
“Experts hold a cautious attitude toward how much the new Australian leader’s China policy will differ from Morrison’s reckless moves that served the US’s strategic interests. Especially in South Pacific island countries, the new Australian government is highly likely to invest more in competing with China.
“But smearing China’s cooperation with those countries or distorting it as a ‘China threat’ would not change the course of the equal and reciprocal cooperation between China and Pacific island countries.”
The opinion piece noted Albanese’s “little experience in diplomacy” and quoted a research fellow at the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies, Zhou Fangyin, offering advice to the incoming prime minister.
“If the new prime minister is smart enough, he would adopt a cautious rhetoric and avoid putting the role of Australia under the spotlight, otherwise, it would only serve as a bad beginning for Australia-China relations under the new government,” he said.
Albanese said he wanted to use the trip to showcase his new government’s commitment to the US alliance, which he said remained Australia’s “most important”, along with its other relationships in the region.
“The meetings that we will have, not just with the United States, but importantly with our hosts in Japan and India, are going to be very important, in a good way, to send a message to the world that there’s a new government in Australia and it’s a government that represents a change, in terms of the way that we deal with the world on issues like climate change, but also a continuity in the way that we have respect for democracy and the way that we value our friendships and long time alliances.”
The Quad summit is likely to finalise a new maritime initiative aimed at tackling illegal Chinese fishing in the Indo Pacific and will also canvass how the four countries can cooperate more closely on cyber challenges and climate change.
Washington has expressed alarm at the recently signed security pact between China and Solomon Islands, which sparked concern that China was planning to establish a military base 1,700km north-east of the Queensland coastline. China is reportedly pursuing similar agreements with Kiribati.
The White House has declared the summit would send a “powerful message” to Beijing about its focus in the Indo Pacific, which comes after Biden visited South Korea to meet with the president, Yoon Suk-yeol.
“We think putting that on display over four days — bilaterally with the ROK and Japan, through the Quad, through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — it will send a powerful message. We think that message will be heard everywhere. We think it will be heard in Beijing,” the White House’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said.