What he did was mark the conversation realistically as a “critical first step.” He demonstrated that sleepers do not need to be locked in permafrost.

And his statement after that meeting was entirely consistent with the carefully prepared remarks he made at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Marles’ speech demonstrated that a new language about China is possible. He showed that an Australian minister can, in no uncertain terms, clearly define the threats posed by China’s assertion to regional peace and order while emphasizing the defense of the national interest and the need for respect and dialogue in a time of profound strategic change. anxiety.

Only fanatics believe that ASEAN can be enrolled in Washington’s agenda for the Quad.

He spoke of the requirement for “reassuring political know-how”, the common thread of which would be composure and rationality in the development and conduct of policies: across the Taiwan Strait and in relations of China with India, South Korea and Australia.

While the Coalition under Scott Morrison had regularly subcontracted its worldview to some of the ideological tenets of American neo-conservatism, the Labor Party gives expression to what historian Neville Meaney once called the “pragmatic tradition , skeptical and humane” in Australia which, “when harnessed to intellectual discipline”, can “provide the basis for better diplomacy”.

Curiously, the defense minister’s speech did not mention the Quad. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin mentioned it several times during his own speech, noting the Quad’s “new vigour”.

Little or nothing should be done with this absence. And not just because Labor, on coming to power, almost immediately signaled its pro-American alliance credentials and commitment to AUKUS.

The new government could not have done more to back up its Quad credentials. Traveling to Tokyo for the Quad leaders’ meeting, Mr Albanese said partnership is “needed more than ever to meet the challenges and threats of a less secure world”. It is, he said, a “very important forum” that demonstrates “what unites us” in terms of democracy and the rule of law.

However, the government declares its intention to consider Southeast Asia on its own terms. In Jakarta, Mr. Albanese also claimed that ASEAN was “at the absolute center of our vision for the Indo-Pacific”.

Among other measures, he will appoint a roving envoy to the region, showing that Canberra is ready to listen and learn through silent exchanges on how Southeast Asian countries, especially Singapore, are handling Chinese bullying. . This is a different conversation than the one about the economic coercion Australia has suffered from Beijing, but still, such a dialogue cannot start soon enough.

Mr. Albanese has also publicly expressed his respect for Indonesia’s historic approach to the world and its position in international relations.

Given Indonesia’s size and confidence, as well as its positioning between Washington and Beijing, it may be too late for Canberra to develop the kind of relationship with Jakarta that it had in the early to mid-1990s. 1990s. What also remains crucial will be discerning, over time, what this new Australian tone and approach will look like from Jakarta’s perspective.

While Labor clearly wants to give ASEAN greater prominence than its predecessor, supporting it where it can to adopt a more forward-looking agenda and helping it with other capacity-building measures ( as evidenced by the emphasis on Australian assistance to Indonesia in maritime safety and security), it may have to adapt to ASEAN’s limitations and tendency to indecisiveness.

And while ASEAN and the Quad are two separate entities, discord will surely come if a post-Biden administration seeks to grant the Quad a more explicit military dimension that excludes ASEAN or attempts to co-opt it for the “Indo- Pacific”.

It will therefore be necessary to ensure that the language of the “centrality” of ASEAN does not become a code to siphon it into the vortex of strategic competition between the United States and China or to avoid the pursuit of multilateralism, in particular of the type embodied in the regional agreement. Global economic partnership.

Only fanatics believe that ASEAN can be enrolled in Washington’s agenda for the Quad. So it was reassuring to hear US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin – despite President Biden’s recent pronouncements on Taiwan and the inauguration of a half-baked Indo-Pacific economic framework – tell his audience in Singapore that Washington wants that the countries of the region are “free to choose”. , free to prosper and free to chart their own course.

Canberra will also have to bear in mind the meaning of ASEAN “centrality” as understood regionally – not what others think it should mean.