Penny Wong decries Morrison government’s position on Taiwan as ‘most dangerous election tactic in Australian history’

The Morrison government is embarking on “the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history” by talking up the prospect of Australia joining a war over Taiwan, according to senior Labor frontbencher Penny Wong.

The shadow minister for foreign affairs will use a speech on Tuesday to accuse Scott Morrison of “desperately playing politics on China whenever he’s in trouble” – citing the prime minister’s recent attempt to portray Labor as siding with Beijing.

Wong will also accuse the defence minister, Peter Dutton, of straying from longstanding bipartisan policy on Taiwan. She will say Dutton is doing the people of Taiwan “no favours by amplifying Beijing’s fatalism” about the limited options available.

In a wide-ranging foreign policy speech, Wong will say Australia needs to expand its power and influence, including by restoring its “reputation for being straight shooters who pull our weight”.

She will say it is a time of “great uncertainty’ with challenges including “rising nationalism, fraying multilateralism, great power competition, emerging Covid strains, an ever-warming planet – and a more assertive China”.

‘Amping up’ war

The Australian government and the Labor party have both raised concerns about an increase in Chinese military pressure against Taiwan, a democratically governed island of 24 million people, amid Beijing’s long-term goal of “unification” with what it considers its territory.

Dutton told the Australian newspaper earlier this month: “The question is: would we join with the US? It would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US in an action if the US chose to take that action.”

Wong will characterise Dutton’s comments in the context of the Morrison government’s reported intention to make national security a focus of the election, which is due by May.

“Amping up the prospect of war against a superpower is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history – a tactic employed by irresponsible politicians who are desperate to hang on to power at any cost,” Wong will say a speech to the Australian National University on Tuesday.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson will describe a Taiwan conflict as the greatest risk to peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, with the consequences potentially “catastrophic for humanity”.

Australia, Wong says, has long adopted a bipartisan position of advocating to deter unilateral changes to the status quo in Taiwan. Republican and Democratic administrations in the US have also upheld “strategic ambiguity” in relation to whether to join a war over Taiwan. Dutton is “wildly out of step” with this strategy.

“Surely the real question is not, as he suggests, whether we declare our intentions, but why the defence minister is amping up war, rather than working to maintain longstanding policy to preserve the status quo – as advocated by the Taiwanese leader, Tsai-Ing Wen.”

Wong will point to observations by the Lowy Institute’s Natasha Kassam that the People’s Republic of China has long pushed the narrative that “the only options available to Taiwan are unification or war”.

Other analysts have also argued Beijing’s goal is to “gradually weaken the will of the people of Taiwan to resist integration with the mainland”.

In parliament on Monday, Dutton said the Australian government was “providing certainty to Australians when it comes to national security.

“People understand – they’ve seen Labor operating in the past, they understand that Labor is weak on national security,” Dutton told parliament.

“And the reality is that it doesn’t get any weaker than this leader of the opposition.”

‘Never trust him again’

Wong will cast Dutton’s comments on Taiwan as “the worst in a litany of cases of the Morrison-Joyce government seeking to use foreign policy and national security for political advantage”.

She will cite Morrison’s attempt to link the Labor leader to China as another “shameless example”.

Earlier this month, Morrison was asked whether he was concerned about the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull both calling him a liar. Morrison replied: “Well, no. I see Anthony Albanese backed in the Chinese government and a number of others in having a crack at me as well.”

Wong will say while it is true that China has changed, and that the relationship has become harder for Australia to manage, the prime minister’s instinct to play politics “does nothing to strengthen Mr Morrison’s authority with Australians or Beijing”.

She will say world leaders “will never trust him again after he leaked private text messages” related to the submarine contract cancellation “which in fact proved that president Macron did not know what was coming, exposing another lie”.

Projecting a ‘confident, unified, modern Australia’

In broader remarks on Tuesday, Wong will say Australia needs to expand its power and influence by setting “political interests aside from our national interests” and bringing all the aspects of its statecraft together.

That would include reaching “into the vast, untapped power of our people” and projecting “a confident, unified, modern Australia to the modern world”.

Wong will argue Australia needs to treat southeast Asia as a priority. While Labor has backed the Aukus partnership with the US and the UK, she says that must be accompanied by more regional engagement.

She will pledge to appoint an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) special envoy, “a roving high-level representative, respected in the region, to complement our diplomatic network, and forge close relationships with capitals”.

Wong will also fault the government for “stubbornly ignoring” calls from Pacific leaders for Australia to do the right thing on climate, saying a credible “step-up” in the region would “only happen under an Albanese Labor government that is genuine on climate”.

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