Tony Abbott goes north
4 Apr 2014|

Tony Abbott’s first trip to North Asia as Prime Minister will have a strong business and trade flavour. He will be accompanied by a phalanx of business heavies and state and territory leaders. The business focus is appropriate: Japan, South Korea and China represent 40% of Australia’s total two-way trade, worth over $250 billion. But much of the background atmosphere of the visit will be connected to the region’s increasingly sharp-edged strategic competition. Relations between China and Japan and South Korea and Japan are as poor as they have been in a generation. Territorial disputes over rather underwhelming rocks and islands pit increasingly assertive military and para-military forces against each other, fuelled by social-media driven nationalism. Most recently, the MH370 disaster has shown the ineffectiveness of regional cooperation. North Asia is an increasingly bolshy place and therefore a rather difficult destination for a newish Prime Minister.

How can Tony Abbott steer Australia’s interests through those choppy shoals? The Prime Minister’s late March address to the Asia Society in Canberra sets out his desired parameters for the visit. As expected the emphasis is heavily on trade and on the mutually beneficial value of maintaining stability as an essential foundation for growth. There is no reference to Japan as being Australia’s ‘best friend in Asia’, rather the more tightly-scripted line that ‘Australia’s friendship with Japan has been one of the most mutually beneficial bilateral relationships in global history.’ On China, the PM says: ‘It’s hard to overstate the importance and the strength of Australia’s relationship with China.’ So the speech carefully avoids language which might imply a ranking of Australian regard. Abbott says: ‘My message is that making new friends doesn’t mean losing old ones.’ That’s tough when the old friend and the new friend don’t get along, but on this visit a key aim will be to avoid giving the impression that Australia will concede on one relationship in order to please another.

On security, Abbott says:

On issues like counter-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, combating piracy, and disaster relief, Australia’s engagement with our North Asian partners is strong but can yet be deepened. I’ll be looking for opportunities to work more effectively together on contemporary challenges such as maritime cooperation, cyber, food and energy security.

Although the language casts these opportunities equally across Japan, Korea and China, it’s obvious that the greatest potential for achieving practical cooperation is with Japan. Media reports that the PM will sign a ‘historic defence and security pact’ with Japan [The Age, 3 April] would certainly change the character of the visit, but this is more likely to reflect an agreement on defence industrial cooperation similar to that signed by Japan and the United Kingdom in July last year. An analogous agreement with Australia would certainly raise an eyebrow in Beijing, but will most likely be seen as part of an already established pattern of cooperation between Canberra and Tokyo. That will fall short of a formal alliance, which is the step some commentators say would generate an unfavorable Chinese reaction.

As Mr Abbott flies to his destination he should be considering a number of initiatives to discuss with his hosts. With China, the continued search for the MH370 will remain a central topic after trade and investment matters have been dealt with. The PM has handled the international search effort adroitly. He has used the crisis as a way to build a connection both with President Xi and with Premier Li Keqiang, by personally briefing them on search efforts. The Australian operation has done its utmost to welcome the Chinese and other countries in their search efforts, and to integrate those into a combined operation. Angus Houston’s appointment as the search coordinator creates an opportunity to discuss how the region should prepare and plan search and rescue efforts more effectively.

The MH370 experience gives Mr Abbott an opportunity to propose closer defence cooperation with China. How about agreeing a regular series of more demanding search and rescue exercises; a regular visit from PLA Air Force assets and reciprocal RAAF visits to China; more open information exchange relating to search and disaster response? There is unlikely to be a more opportune time to push for a step change in Defence cooperation with China.

With Japan, the list of opportunities for cooperation is long. If a defence industry agreement is in prospect then surely high on the Prime Minister’s list will be discussing Japan’s submarine and undersea technology. How might that inform Australian thinking on our own Future Submarine program? Japan will want a quid pro quo and here Australia may be in a position to discuss shared training opportunities for our respective Joint Strike Fighter Fleets.

With South Korea, defence cooperation remains limited, although the potential for growth is strong, particularly in the maritime sector. Seoul will be interested still in any industry opportunities that may come along as a result of Army’s vehicle replacement program. The Koreans will have listened carefully to Mr Abbott’s statement in Adelaide (before the state election) where he said: ´we make defence decisions on the basis of defence imperatives, not on the basis of industry assistance imperatives or regional assistance imperatives. So we’re not looking at defence as some kind of job creation program, we’re looking at defence as a defence of the nation program and I think it is important to make that absolutely crystal clear.’ Such industrial dryness is music to South Korean ears, if not to South Australian ones.

Peter Jennings is executive director at ASPI. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.