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Australia to focus on Asia if Labor wins polls

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Penny Wong speaking at an event in Perth on 31 July 2014. wikimedia/Orderinchaos

SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia will see a “step change” in engagement with Asia and a more “considered” policy toward China if Labor wins the next election, the party’s would-be foreign minister vowed Wednesday.

Penny Wong — who would become the country’s first Asian-Australian top diplomat if her party continues to lead the conservative government into the May 18 vote — signalled the election would bring a foreign policy pivot to Asia.

Promising policies that would see more Asian languages taught in Australian schools and an increase in Aussie diplomats abroad, Malaysian-born Wong also signalled her wish to have a more constructive relationship with Beijing.

“We don’t pre-emptively frame China only as a threat,” she said.

Like Labor governments before, she promised a “more considered, disciplined and consistent approach to the management of Australia’s relationship with China.”

Successive Australian administrations have struggled to balance a vital trading relationship with China and the Chinese government’s authoritarian reflex.

That balance has become more fraught as Xi Jinping has consolidated power and looked to exercise China’s regional clout to take advantage of waning US influence.

Wong acknowledged that the relationship with China “may become harder to manage in the future.”

But she said the realities of the region were changing: “Those realities include the fact that China will remain important to Australia’s prosperity.”

Across Asia, smaller nations like Australia are grappling with a China that is both more important and less wedded to the rule of law.

Donald Trump’s accent to the US presidency and his limited interest in international rules, norms and decades-old alliances has only complicated matters further for Canberra, traditionally one of Washington’s closest allies.

Wong backed a relationship with the United States that is “fundamental” to Australian security, but acknowledged “power is shifting.”

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