Image: Penny Wong. Source: Foreign Affairs Ministry of Australia - Photo: 2023

Australian FM Urges Britain to Confront Its Colonial Past in Asia

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY (IDN) — In a landmark speech at King’s College London, Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong has urged Britain to confront its colonial past if it wanted to strengthen and build new ties in the Indo-Pacific.

Malaysian-born Wong said that Britain and other countries should strive to shed staying “sheltered in narrower versions” of their histories. Recalling that her grandmother worked as a servant to British colonial masters in Borneo, she noted that such stories would sometimes be uncomfortable for both those who tell them and those who hear them.

“But understanding the past enables us to better share the present and the future,” she told her British audience. She said that increasing tension between China and the US in the Indo-Pacific has made the region “more dangerous and volatile”. Any conflict “would be catastrophic—for our people and our prosperity”, and it would be felt across the world.

The Australian foreign minister added that it was “up to all countries to ask ourselves how can we each use our national power, our influence, our networks, our capabilities, to avert a catastrophic conflict”.

Wong pointed out to her London audience that she has visited 24 countries in Asia and the South Pacific in the last six months as Australia’s foreign minister. She spoke about how important it is to listen and not to lecture while visiting several nations, as Australia has done in recent years.

She was obviously referring to the period (24 August 2018–23 May 2022) when Scott Morrison was Australia’s Prime Minister, and the when he antagonized China and South Pacific nations, pursuing a foreign policy based on “lecturing” instead of listening.

While generations of Australians have considered Britain as the mother country and Britain’s King is still the official head of state represented by a Governor-General in Canberra who is an Australian citizen, Wong pointed out that “as the nature of our nations, our regions and indeed our world has changed, so too has the character of our relationship”.

She referred to the role played by two former Prime Ministers from her Labour Party in shifting Australia’s focus to the neighbourhood. In the 1970s, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam shifted Australia’s perspective of Asia “to a group of countries with which things happened”, she noted, adding that in 1992, another Labour Prime Minister, Paul Keating, had urged Australians “to accept the geophysical reality of our place in the region—to accept that we have a rightful presence in the region”.

“Today, as a modern, multicultural country, home to people of more than 300 ancestries and the oldest continuing culture on earth, Australia sees itself as being in the Indo-Pacific, and being of the Indo-Pacific”, Wong said.

Reminding the British of modern history, Wong said that the Indo-Pacific region is one of the fastest-growing economies and accounts for 40 per cent of global GDP. The region is at the forefront of new global trade arrangements; leading and adopting digital and technological innovation and standards; investing strongly in renewables and green tech; and “vital to our goals for investment and resilient supply chains”.

She acknowledged that Australia has its own benefits to gain from economic engagement in the region. “But we also see two broader imperatives for economic engagement. Advancing prosperity for all is in itself a good thing,” argued Wong. “It is not only a contribution to humanity’s betterment, it is an investment in our own security. Stability and prosperity are mutually reinforcing.”

Maintaining that a war in the Indo-Pacific would be catastrophic for the region, Wong told the British that Australia shares “interests beyond the security issues that can so dominate discussion”.

She noted that the countries of the region are ambitious for growth, opportunity and prosperity. “We have seen this in the remarkable trajectories of development in these last decades. We see this in the region’s contribution to global growth.”

Positioning her country as a nation of the Indo-Pacific, Wong said, “Australia is part of this and we want to be part of this. We also want this to be understood by our partners in the region. That we understand that their success is our success”.

Not everyone in Australia believes in this view and still harbour what Wong referred to in her speech as “sheltered in narrower versions of history”.

Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt of the Murdoch-owned Sky News, with the support of the right-wing think tank Institute of Public Affairs accused Wong of having beaten the drum of the Chinese Communist Party. They described her speech as indulging in “woke diplomacy”, a term used here to ridicule especially left-leaning young people who are asking for accountability of colonial repression and alerting western people to prejudism and racial discrimination in their own societies. 

Bolt accused Wong of being “blinded by woke prejudism” and claimed that rather than being the victim of British colonialism (as how she described her family history to the British audience) she and her familat have been the beneficiaries of British colonialism.

Referring to Wong’s story of her ancestors going to North Borneo to work for British miners, he argues “they were not colonized, they joined the colonizers, they joined just like Penny Wong and her parents later joined Australia and enjoy the Fantastic freedoms and opportunities that were first built here by those British colonialists”.

Bolt used his own “woke” argument to paint China as a repressive state from which its own people are fleeing to “free” countries like Australia, thus ignoring the positive contribution that Asia is making to the global economy today. “Speaking of China aren’t we actually begging Britain to build us a nuclear sub or two or three or four to protect us from this dangerous Chinese dictatorship?” he asked.

Bolt brought in Bella D’Abrera, the director of the Foundations of Western Civilization program at the Institute of Public Affairs. “The Chinese Communist Party likes to beat this drum of 100 years of humiliation at the hands of Western powers in order to shame the West and excite nationalism in China,” she told Bolt, who nodded his head in agreement.“Penny Wong has literally beaten the drum of the Chinese Communist Party.”

D’Abrera argues that Wong’s role in going to Britain was “to go and get England to engage in what is arguably the most dangerous situation that we have in the Asia Pacific, but she’s not done that she’s gone to London to tell everyone how terrible the British Empire is (and) how ghastly colonialism is, the sins of white supremacy racism, how terrible Australia is”. What she’s done is “engaging in woke diplomacy and who wins and woke diplomacy its China”, she adds.

Addressing a media briefing after the speech, the Foreign Minister confronted reporters when asked whether Australia and Britain could be perceived as two colonial white powers telling Southeast Asian nations what to do. “We are not a White colonial power,” Wong fired back, accusing the reporter of using an old stereotype.

“If you walk through our cities and our towns, you will see a very different Australia”, she pointed out, adding that what she was advocating is a common foreign policy between two close allies that respects others (in Asia) and recognize “where we are”.  

“I was making a point about histories and talking about who we are. If we are able to speak about that multifaceted history, that does give us greater capacity to engage with the countries of our region,” she said. “I think the narrative and story of who Australia really is, is an enormously powerful part of our foreign policy and I intend to deploy it.” [IDN-InDepthNews — 02 February 2023]

Image: Penny Wong. Source: Foreign Affairs Ministry of Australia

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