Albanese is walking the tightrope with care. He is improving the commercial relationship with the key trade partner while deepening the defence relationship with the key strategic partner.
This is something Australian prime ministers have been attempting for years, from Tony Abbott’s welcome for Chinese President Xi Jinping in Canberra in 2014 to Malcolm Turnbull’s warnings about Chinese foreign interference three years later and Scott Morrison’s falling out with China over the pandemic. The struggles in Canberra were overwhelmingly about changes in Beijing, with Xi setting a more aggressive course to dictate terms to neighbours, but every Australian leader had to wrestle with the dragon.
Albanese will have the same struggle at some point. The conditions are smooth (so far) for his arrival in China, but the government is under no illusion about the prospects for friction. The message for corporate leaders is to pursue a “China plus one” strategy, so they have partners who stay open for business if Beijing closes its door, although this is inadequate insurance when the Australian economy relies so heavily on Chinese growth.
Biden has made sure to make this week’s visit to Washington look impressive, although there is a gulf between the ceremonial glamour and the modest outcomes achieved on the stated priorities such as defence, industry and climate.
A key problem has been the lack of clarity in some of the vaulting ambitions for the visit, such as the idea that Australia could somehow lock itself into the massive subsidies for renewable technologies in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. The incentives in the IRA are sucking capital into the US because the objective is to create jobs for Americans, not for others. There is no sign that will stop, despite the argument from Albanese that Australia can be part of this huge American agenda.
On defence, meanwhile, progress is slow. With the Republicans taking weeks to choose the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and finally settling on Mike Johnson on Wednesday, the Australian visit has struggled to achieve its primary goal: persuading members of Congress to put the AUKUS pact into force by amending the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, to allow the export of US technology.
While Albanese and Biden express full confidence that Congress will understand, eventually, that it is in the American interest to build up Australian capacity with nuclear-powered submarines, who can be sure they are right? Congress is an unknown territory. The idea of bipartisan agreement seems to belong to the past. In this hyper-partisan world, totally changed by the advent of Donald Trump, there is no longer the easy assurance that Congress will vote for the greater good.
This means there was no significant advance on the AUKUS plan this week. The old doubts remain. Will Australia really build the first of the new submarines in South Australia for delivery in the early 2040s? Can Australia really build up its skills with nuclear propulsion in time for that deadline? It seems more likely than ever that Australia will have to rely for too long on its existing fleet or second-hand vessels from the US.
Albanese will have to be judged at the next election on whether he has made any measurable progress on AUKUS, although there is no real threat from Peter Dutton on foreign policy at the moment for the simple reason that the opposition leader’s advice has been either useless or dangerous.
On the conflict in the Middle East, for instance, Dutton calls on Albanese to fly to Tel Aviv for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a partisan provocation rather than a pause-for-thought policy. The Liberal solution is for the Australian prime minister to take up time with Netanyahu when he is dealing with a hostage crisis, a terrorist opponent and the challenge of an imminent ground invasion of Gaza. Dutton was a dangerous opponent on the Voice, but he is yet to repeat that effectiveness elsewhere.
Albanese will return to Australia on Saturday to find old problems are still haunting him. While he sidestepped questions about the Voice while overseas, he will be reminded of that failure once at home – and will have to be asked about the anger from Indigenous leaders who condemned the “shameful act” of No voters.
Another quotation from Martin Luther King seems to fit the moment. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” King said in 1963. The prime minister knows the quote – he saw it engraved in stone on Monday morning. And it is good advice for any leader.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent.