KATHARINE MURPHY July 24, 2012
TONY Abbott's speech in China is interesting on a number of levels.
Since May, the Opposition leader has been executing a positive pivot on the Asian Century. This transition has left Mr Abbott more comfortable conceptually than he was last October about a bilateral free trade deal between Canberra and Beijing.
Back then, in an interview on our way back from a trip to Cape York, Abbott told me a free trade deal with Japan - the market economy and pluralist democracy - would be a priority under any government he led.
Our exchange went like this.
Are you completely comfortable with Australia's free trade agreement with China?
"Oh well, look. The issue with China is to what extent is China a market economy?"
"I think China is one of the more problematic free trade agreements."
Is it problematic enough not to do it?
"If it's advantageous to Australia as well as to China then why wouldn't you do it?"
"I think, for argument's sake, a free trade agreement with Japan would be a higher priority."
Why is that?
"Japan is vastly more of a market economy than China, as well as being a pluralist democracy."
And that makes Japan more advantageous in your view?
"I think it would be advantageous in any serious person's view."
Given John Howard had initiated the China FTA, and showed himself steely eyed and pragmatic in his dealings with Beijing, Abbott's mild hesitation about his political mentor's policy direction, and his rather direct rationale for it, was note-worthy.
But now, the bilateral FTA will be pursued with vigour.
New Zealand has sealed its deal with Beijing, and under a Prime Minister Abbott, Australia would seek to do the same.
Mr Abbott today: "Of course, it was also the Howard Government that began negotiations on a free trade agreement with China. At the time, it was the first FTA that China had embarked upon with a major developed country.
"Since then, New Zealand has successfully concluded its FTA in just three years while Australia's agreement remains a work-in-progress despite seven years of negotiations. The proposed FTA with Japan has also stalled. As part of its commitment to freer trade more generally, spurred on by New Zealand's experience, an incoming Coalition government would renew our pursuit of these bilateral agreements."
But evident progress in Abbott's personal comfort-level about the proposed free trade agreement notwithstanding, today's speech, viewed in broader terms and across the suite of issues, amplifies the Opposition leader's strongly held belief about the fundamental difference in values between Communist China and democratic Australia.
Abbott has today raised explicitly the idea that China should embark on political reform.
He wants, over time, Australia's relationship with China to be based on shared values and aspirations as well as mutually beneficial economic interests. A lofty goal; and a challenging one, given, well .. everything.
Foreign investment is unwelcome from state owned enterprises.
China's military needs not to get ahead of itself. Abbott: "We accept the modernization of China's armed forces because that's what all countries want for their military. On the other hand, no big country is entitled to get its way with smaller ones just because it can."
Australia will not choose between being a friend to America or China - no matter who asks us to.
And Australia won't forget the pesky issue of human rights. "We will be a strong voice for human rights confident that, over time, the better angels of our natures will everywhere assert themselves."
Katharine Murphy is The Age national affairs correspondent and writes The Pulse blog for The National Times