Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek says balancing Australia's long-standing alliance with the United States with a need to strengthen its relationship with China remains the country's “essential challenge” and foreign policy conundrum.
As Prime Minister Tony Abbott, on an official visit in New York, urged President Barack Obama to remain focused on the US strategic 'pivot' to the region while not viewing China's rise as a threat, Ms Plibersek was in Beijing – her first foray to China in any capacity – taking the first tentative steps of formulating the policies to help maintain the seemingly perpetual juggling act between the world's two superpowers.
“The purpose of the trip really is to begin what I expect will be a very long process of developing relationships that I hope will take us back into government,” said Ms Plibersek, who is also Labor's shadow minister for foreign affairs and international development.
Ms Plibersek, travelling with shadow minister for trade Penny Wong in Beijing, said there would be no dramatic departure in foreign policy from previous Labor governments under Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.
The Gillard government commissioned the Australia in the Asian Century white paper. It was also Ms Gillard who, standing alongside President Obama, announced the rotation of US marines through a base in Darwin, which has come to signify Washington's stop-start pivot back towards Asia.
“Our alliance with the US, our long and close friendship with them, the similarities between us – all of these are really important to Australia right now,” she said.
“But we also have a very close relationship with China. We want to increase the relationship with China.
“The best outcome is to have strengthened, closer relationships with both.”
Beijing has seen Washington's desire to return to a larger role in the Asia-Pacific region has been seen as a direct move to contain the rise of Chinese influence in the region.
Increasing Chinese assertiveness in territorial disputes in the East and South China seas with neighbours Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines have been seen by analysts in part as a tactic to test the extent to which the US is willing to back its friends in the region.
Ms Plibersek said there were no major “differences of view” when it came to the Abbott government's foreign policy settings.
But, she said, that it “hadn't always handled the relationship the way we would have”.
The Prime Minister has called Japan Australia's best friend in Asia.
Labor had previously described as an over-reach the calling in of the Chinese ambassador to protest against Beijing's imposition of an air defence zone over the East China Sea last year.
Ms Plibersek also signalled that a Labor government would be more courageous in expressing human rights concerns in China, and would not be intimidated in defending the consular rights of Australian citizens in China.
“On each occasion where we've had official visits from Labor PMs, we've also raised the important issue of human rights and freedom of expression, and of course we'd continue to do that,” she said.