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Abbott's diplomacy will pay dividends

Benjamin Herscovitch | 04 April 2014

benjamin-herscovitchAs Beijing pushes for control of contested territory across Asia, China's rise and relative US decline are further destabilising the region.

This has fuelled fears that the Abbott government is unprepared and ill-suited to navigate Asia's fraught international relations.

However, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott set for a successful tour of North Asia's three economic powerhouses next week, these doubts are likely to prove unfounded.

Abbott will be warmly welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: He publicly labelled Japan as Australia's 'closest friend' in Asia last year, and Canberra has nearly secured a free trade agreement (FTA) with Tokyo.

Beyond extensive and expanding economic relations, Tokyo shares Canberra's commitment to Asia's status quo of ongoing US leadership. At the same time, Tokyo greatly appreciates Canberra's unapologetic opposition to Chinese attempts to establish de facto sovereignty over Japanese-administered territory in the East China Sea.

Abbott will equally share much common ground with South Korean President Park Geun-hye as they sign the Australia-South Korea FTA in Seoul.

Australia and South Korea face the same predicament - longstanding alliances with the United States and economic dependence on China - and Abbott and Park have adopted the same pragmatic tactics: Maintain a strong security relationship with Washington and further develop economic ties with China without kowtowing to Beijing.

Despite hints from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last month about a speedy conclusion of negotiations for the Australia-China FTA, this trade agreement remains a more distant prospect. Moreover, Beijing was visibly distressed by Canberra's forthright criticism of its East China Sea gambit, while Australia supports and China is suspicious of the growing US military presence in the Western Pacific.

Nevertheless, Abbott's massive delegation - which will include Trade Minister Andrew Robb, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, all six state premiers, and hundreds of business leaders - will not be derailed by strategic disagreements between Beijing and Canberra.

'Win-win cooperation' is the mantra of Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping.

For Beijing, wise diplomacy starts with common ground and shared interests, with contentious disputes deferred for as long as possible.

The government's prioritisation of economic diplomacy is therefore perfectly suited to deepening relations with China. Beijing is keen to downplay diplomatic rifts and concentrate on mutually beneficial trade and investment links.

By emphasising shared strategic goals with Japan and South Korea and focusing on fruitful economic relations with China, Abbott is sending signals that will play well in all key North Asian capitals.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.