The senior official of the Australian Foreign Minister’s Department, Jan Adams, said that Penny Wong‘s comments on Britain’s colonial history did not cause any diplomatic tension. In a Senate Estimates Committee hearing on Feb. 16, Adams said that while Wong’s words in the context of modern Britain were “unexceptional,” they were not the main focus of the discussions. Wong had delivered a speech to the King’s College in London on Jan. 31, in which she said that the United Kingdom must address its colonial past to improve ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific. Wong also spoke of Australia’s development of its own identity separate from that of a British colony.
Projecting Australia’s Multicultural Image
Wong has sought to counter disinformation from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), particularly from the CCP’s acting ambassador to Australia who previously described the AUKUS deal between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States as an “Anglo-Saxon Clique.” The foreign minister said that projecting Australia’s multicultural image was to increase its influence and power in the Indo-Pacific, which is important in the context of AUKUS and the QUAD deal with Japan, India, and the United States. Western governments, such as Australia and the United States, are also looking to strengthen relations with Pacific Island nations, many of whom were former colonies of Western nations. Wong said that if conflict were to break out in the area, it would be catastrophic for the people and prosperity of the region.
Critics Say Minister Dabbling in Identity Politics
Greg Sheridan wrote in an op-ed in The Australian newspaper that Wong’s speech was one promoting identity politics, and that, combined with Anthony Albanese’s comments linking the proposed constitutional change to establish an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament with foreign policy, was an indication that identity politics was seeping into the government’s foreign policy. When asked by the opposition’s Senate leader, Simon Birmingham, what she thought of Sheridan’s op-ed, Wong said that while she had high regard for the author, she would “tell him to relax.” Meanwhile, Eric Louw wrote in an op-ed published by The Epoch Times that the colonialism label has often been used by current leaders of underdeveloped countries to detract from day-to-day governance and corruption issues, and has been exploited by Beijing to win the influence battle over developing nations.
The UK’s Response
When asked whether the UK had satisfactorily confronted its colonial past after Wong’s speech, Britain’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said “You’re asking the black foreign secretary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain? Yeah, I think the answer is yes—you’re looking at it, you’re talking to it!” Cleverly added that while history mattered, “what matters more is the stuff we can do in the future.” He said that countries around the globe were keen to work with the UK and focus on opportunities of the future, which he said was exemplified by his relationship with Wong.
Daniel Y. Teng contributed to this report.