DANIEL FLITTON July 17, 2012
A trip to Beijing gives the Liberal leader a chance to outline his foreign policy.
PAUL Keating went to Beijing a few months ago, only to find himself at the receiving end of a lecture that is becoming all too familiar for Australian visitors to the Asian superpower. The feelings of the Chinese people, he was told by a senior official, had been greatly hurt by the recent deployment of 200 American marines to a base near Darwin.
Keating, so the story goes, was having none of it. ''Come off it,'' he said. ''I just walked across Tiananmen Square and saw more People's Liberation Army soldiers standing guard, waiting to bop anyone on the head who might dare protest. The idea that even 2500 Americans in the far off Northern Territory pose a threat to China is a joke.''
I'm taking liberty with the quote here - after contacting Keating's office, I was told his conversations with Chinese ministers have to remain confidential and he was not in a position to either confirm or deny the episode. Fair enough. But the story has a good lesson, even if it's only a story. All the Chinese angst about the military presence in Australia has to be kept in perspective; it is starting to sound a little shrill.
Tony Abbott is about to get the ''hurt feelings'' lecture too, arriving in Beijing later this week on a trip to burnish his foreign policy credentials. He will be assessed as the likely next Australian prime minister, and, as Kevin Rudd discovered, it does no profit to raise Chinese expectations about what approach his government will take on China.
But that is the puzzle: what sort of a perspective will Abbott bring to Australia's international affairs? He has made few forays into foreign policy matters beyond the realm of border protection. His statements on Australia in the world are captured in sound bites - ''a Jakarta focus rather than a Geneva one'' or praise for the old saw, ''speak softly and carry a big stick'' - and complaints about how Labor has mismanaged issues, from uranium sales to India or banning cattle exports to Indonesia.
This doesn't tell much about Abbott's vision for Australia in a changing world.
What, for example, should the Chinese make of a throwaway line in his 2009 conservative manifesto Battlelines, that, ''Although China is likely to become even stronger in the years ahead, this may not mean much change for Australia's international relationships or foreign policy priorities.'' This is the same rising China whose insatiable demand for resources has kept Australia afloat and is on track to become the world's largest economy. The shift of power to Asia, centred on China, has prompted the Americans to deploy 60 per cent of its navy to the region - hardly something to be dismissed as not ''much change''.
Abbott has left himself open to misinterpretation by making little effort to explain, in detail, how he sees the world. The most obvious reading of the China statement is he is championing Australia's democratic values and historic alliances with like-minded countries. He hinted last year that a free trade deal with Japan would be a higher priority than one with China - Japan's system of government was ''advantageous in any serious person's view'', whereas China was ''one of the more problematic'' deals under negotiation. In simple terms, shared values is what matters, not just the amount of goods traded.
This fits with past praise for the ''Anglosphere'', a notion he has tried to broaden beyond the countries founded as British colonies (the US, Canada, Australia) to include parliamentary democracies such as Japan. He has stopped using the term, sensibly given the ethnic exclusion, but along with his fervent monarchism, it shows where his heart lies.
And again, without having made an effort to explain how his ideology will inform his choices in a contemporary context, it leaves him open to misinterpretation. He sounds suspiciously like an Antipodean neo-con when he speaks in these terms - the same sort of zeal that drove the Bush administration's disastrous invasion of Iraq.
He warned in Battlelines, that ''if Australia is to matter in the wider world, Australians should expect more, not less, future involvement in international security issues.''
The view of Abbott the neo-con confronting ideological enemies won't be helped by his choice of venue for a speech in Washington in the days before he goes to Beijing: the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. The Australia-US alliance is the theme of his address and there is no sensible way to approach this topic without considering China. If Abbott doesn't set out his thinking about China, and explain how Australia will manage ties between its most important economic partner and its old ally, he may well be counted in the circles of those seen to celebrate China's economic decline.
With Keating, the Chinese at least knew where he was coming from, but with Abbott, they will want to know where he is going.
Daniel Flitton is senior correspondent.