April 8, 2014
Tony Abbott and the Premier of China, Li Keqiang. Photo: Alex Ellinghause
Tony Abbott was given a useful piece of advice for his swing through Japan, Korea, and then China: Your visit to China starts when you arrive in Japan but your visit to Japan won’t end until you’ve left China.
Abbott laughs nervously when he reflects on the joke, as if to say, “I know that’s true but you won’t hear it from me, ha ha ha”.
In the lead up to this North Asian tour, taking in the three economies which together account for more than half of all of Australia’s two-way trade, he’s had it emphasised time and again through briefings with foreign policy boffins, top CEOs, strategic experts, and academics.
Concern on these things is reasonable, but the heightened fear among the wonks was that “stop-the-boats-Tony” might lack the temperament for international diplomacy.
But Abbott has spent a political career surprising those who under-estimate the power of his intelligence, his people skills (funnily enough), and perhaps most importantly, his directness.
Not that this trip was ever going to be easy whomever led it.
Tokyo and Beijing watch each other like hawks, and rage with jealousy when any advantage is taken by the other.
And never forget Korea – the economically sophisticated, yet perennially anxious middle brother. It sits at the cross-roads of western democratic capitalism on the one hand, and the more militaristic command states of Asia on the other, and lives with the ever present threat of attack from North Korea just kilometres and therefore minutes away.
These economic and strategic power-houses are crucial to Australia’s prosperity. They are also crucial to regional stability.
For Abbott, prosperity and stability are two peas from the same pod. Not for him the over-blown puffery of a Kevin Rudd or the China-first pre-occupation of his successor Julia Gillard.
Rather he has gone for the honest approach of unvarnishing Australia’s desire for wealth, in order to stress more effectively, the mutual benefits to be had by all from that very pursuit. It’s admirably simple. Prosperity and freedom, of themselves bring stability – and stability is vital to ongoing improvement in living standards.
In North Asia as anywhere else, this rings true. Wealthy democracies do not invade each other.
It is a recognised truism that the political leaders claiming the deepest expertise in foreign policy when they arrive, tend to make the least effective international players. Names like Gough Whitlam, Bob Carr (albeit as foreign minister), and Kevin Rudd are sometimes cited. All made some foreign policy gains – Whitlam on relations with China springs to mind, but all felt they were above advice, and in no need of extra learning.
Rudd, the great diplomat and China expert, managed to annoy everyone, starting with the Japanese, followed by the Chinese, and quickly extending to many in the US political community, Europe, and of course voters and his own colleagues at home.
His decision in 2008 to lecture the Chinese on human rights in Tibet on his first visit, displayed little of the deftness diplomacy might have called for.
Paul Keating, John Howard, and Julia Gillard came to the international stage more reluctantly, simply as a by-product of gaining the prime ministership. They had the common decency to start unsurely, yet all turned out to be better at it.
Gillard’s deft handling of the Chinese culminating in her successful visit just over a year ago, is a case in point.
One China insider this week described the Gillard achievement of securing “strategic partnership” status with Beijing in early 2013 as “really remarkable”.
Although some contend her Beijing focus came at a cost to other issues in the region – including the Japan free trade push.
Abbott is building on these solid foundations.
An official meeting with Premier Le Keqiang on arrival in Hainan (southern China) on Wednesday, took place under the terms of the annual leaders’ level dialogue licensed by that very partnership.
A telephone call last week ostensibly made to discuss the search MH370, turned quickly to the forthcoming visit, which given his plan to go to Tokyo first, might have been tricky. Abbott’s advisers said the tone was more than cordial, it was extremely warm.
Instead the Premier said the bilateral relationship was in good shape and he hoped Abbott’s visit would elevate it to a new level.
Which is not to downplay the complexity of the diplomatic footwork needed by Abbott on this week’s tour.
Beijing is more concerned about Australia’s open endorsement of increased Japanese military spending than Australia wants to admit.
So Abbott’s commitment to a formal arms and military technology agreement with Tokyo, was always risky – especially in light of his earlier classification of Japan as Australia’s best friend in Asia.
The other favourable aspect of Abbott’s North Asia tour is the timing. Despite their differences and their deep animosities, all three Asian economies are at a common place.
And all three have reforming leaders looking for help to drive reform. That help is trade liberalisation.
The Japanese call it Gai atsu – which means, external pressure. The Chinese talk of Gai ge and Kai Fang which means Change, Reform, Open up. And even the Koreans are into it as they look to rejuvenate a flat-lining market for more than a decade through the Creative Economy initiative of President Park Geun-hye. All are bumping up against the limitations of command-state capitalism and export-dependent growth, and want the outside leverage to pierce institutionalised sluggishness.
That outside pressure can be used to Australia’s considerable advantage. That’s another thing Tony Abbott seems to know.
Mark Kenny is Fairfax chief political correspondent.
Source : The Sydney Morning Herald