COMMENT: Australia Open for Business

Tony Abbott is to be congratulated on his recent North Asia trip, especially in his approach to China, writes Rowan Callick.



A second successive visit by an Australian prime minister to China has gone off without a hitch. More than that, it has built mightily on the foundations laid by Julia Gillard’s trip exactly a year earlier, which saw the countries agree to a “strategic dialogue” relationship.

Despite concerns raised by critics who, in the tribal Australian tradition, are often politically partisan, Prime Minister Tony Abbott succeeded in his eight-day north Asia tour in early April, in surpassing expectations.

The scene was handily set shortly before leaving for north Asia, when Australia’s competent, calm role in leading the agonising search for missing Malaysian flight MH370 was underlined. Abbott became a focus for regional media at Pearce RAAF base as he hosted Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, took a half-hour phone call with China’s Premier Li Keqiang, and was photographed with flying crew from Asian airforces, including those from China, South Korea, and Japan, that had lately been in a state of tension. Premier Li anticipated in the call, that the level of the relationship between Australia and China would be raised during Abbott’s visit.

In Japan, Abbott confirmed close relations with the resilient government there, and especially Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is becoming a more powerful single leader than the country has known for a generation or two – in some ways in parallel with China’s President Xi Jinping. Both are heading new, whole-of-government commissions on security and economic reform that answer to them personally. But Abbott managed to do so without using the unnecessarily provocative formula he previously used, that Japan is Australia’s “best friend in Asia.”

And while naturally discussing security issues with an important strategic partner, he avoided taking sides over the confrontations in the East and South China Seas, beyond stressing that no one should endanger stability by unilaterally challenging or upsetting the status quo.

Most importantly of course, Abbott and Abe announced that their countries had concluded an Economic Partnership Agreement, the title used by Japan for its free trade agreements – recognising that the concessions rarely go far enough for trade to be designated “free.”

Abbott went on to sign in Seoul with President Park Geun-hye the FTA that had been concluded in December, which was considerably more comprehensive than many experts had anticipated, and which forms the benchmark through which the other two north Asian agreements were and are being negotiated, especially on opening access without review to most investment up to $1 billion.

The third of the three FTAs that Abbott had set as an ambitious target for the first year of his government, the most challenging – with China – now looms as more likely to be achieved than not.

Premier Li flagged in his work report to the National People’s Congress in March that progress towards the Australia FTA would be accelerated. And under this leadership team, that appears to mean action and not merely rhetoric.

In China, Abbott attended the Bo’ao Forum, an important mark of respect for an annual event on which Chinese leaders have set considerable store in terms of the country’s international prestige. The body language between Abbott and Li there was disarmingly informal, and the tone of the prime minister’s speech was nicely-pitched: “Australia is not in China to do a deal, but to be a friend. We don’t just visit because we need to, but because we want to. Our region and our world need peace and understanding based on international law and mutual respect.”

And it was important for Abbott to say, as he did at Bo’ao: “We’re here to help build the Asian century” – clearly referring to the white paper initiated by Julia Gillard. Such a bipartisan approach, implying an Australian continuity in Asia engagement, helps build confidence.

He went on to launch Australia week in Shanghai, and then to spend valuable time in Beijing with President Xi, at a formal banquet, at an intimate dinner for a dozen, and in official talks – as well as impressing reformist Vice Premier Wang Yang with a Chinese toast at a banquet that he hosted for Abbott and business leaders of both sides.

Abbott’s direct but respectful approach proved disarmingly effective, in China as in his visits to Japan and South Korea, Australia’s second and third biggest export markets after China.

Leading Team Australia on the visit sent off a strong signal. Abbott was accompanied by all six state premiers, by a smallish group of billionaires and corporate heavyweights, and also at some destinations in China by 600 business leaders.

In China at the same time there were three other Ministers – the Asia-savvy, highly focused Andrew Robb at Trade and Investment, the first Liberal to take the portfolio for 57 years, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has helped set up relationships, prepared policy and paved the way for the administration’s Asia-Pacific successes, and Small Business Minister Bruce Billson.

Predictability and consistency are especially valued in international partnerships, and a pattern is starting to form that Asian politicians tend to prefer to “the vision thing”. But they like even more, if Australian leaders come over to their way of thinking – and there were strong signs during Abbott’s tour, that he has shifted from his former strong dislike of state owned enterprise investment in Australia, and is prepared to consider opening doors far wider, in what may prove the key concession for getting the FTA over the line ready for Xi’s visit to Australia for the Brisbane G20 summit in mid-November.

The week before Abbott’s visit, I had been speaking at a conference about engaging with Asia and especially China, of leading Australian educators – including heads of some of the country’s top schools – in Suzhou. This 2500-year-old city of canals and pagodas and gardens, with its Temple of Mystery, Tower of Pleasurable Fanning, and Humble Administrator’s Garden, underlined for those visitors from Australia the lesson that engagement must mean more than the sending and receipt of goods, important though that process is.

Just as with visitors who encounter the graciousness of Tokyo and the effervescence of Seoul, people coming to China need to understand who they are relating to and what they have to offer in the deepest sense, beyond FTAs. Abbott showed signs of such understanding, and the broader relationship will now be the better for it.

*Rowan Callick is the Asia-Pacific Editor for The Australian newspaper and the author of Party Time, Who Runs China and How.

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