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Illustration: John Shakespeare.

The Chinese government was unhappy with Australia's new Prime Minister: Tony Abbott in October had embraced its great rival Japan as "Australia's best friend in Asia".

A senior Chinese official privately asked Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop for an explanation in Canberra in November. She disarmed the Chinese by laughing it off: "Tony does that all the time in cabinet. He puts his arm around everyone, everyone's his mate, everyone's his best friend."

When everyone is your best friend, no one is your best friend. It was a clever way of deflecting the protest that lurked behind the question.

But Abbott did say it of Japan, and he has not said the same thing of any other nation in Asia. It still stands.

Then Bishop herself set out another ranking of countries, again bumping China from the top spot, saying in January "our single most important economic partner is, in fact, the United States."

But surely China is now Australia's biggest trading partner? Two-way trade with the US was $54 billion in 2012-13, less than half the $131 billion with China.

Bishop, however, widened the picture to include not just trade but investment. Using this measure allowed her to assert: "So in respect of who is our 'best friend' in economic terms, it is undeniably the US."

So the Abbott government so far has set out two different hierarchies for Australia's foreign relations, and China isn't in top spot in either.

A new Labor senator looking to make a name for himself in foreign affairs, Sam Dastyari, has picked up on this.

Dastyari, formerly the general secretary of the NSW Labor Party, sees a troubling trend, a turn away from the great rising power.

China dominated the world economy till about 1840. Just as the Middle Kingdom returns to the centre of world power, is Australia about to marginalise itself?

Bishop's "assertion that we should prioritise the US at the expense of our relationship with China is a worrying and unnecessary development", Dastyari wrote in The Australian Financial Review.

Her comments "have left me and many others concerned that the Abbott government's pivot could lead to a deterioration in one of our most important diplomatic ties. Publicly ranking our diplomatic partners is quite unnecessary".

Dastyari doggedly pursued this line in Parliament last week. He homed in on the government's reaction to two important developments. One was a provocative move by China and the other by Japan. He wanted to illustrate that Australia had reacted harshly to one and mildly to the other, demonstrating bias.

China's provocative act was unilaterally declaring in November it was suddenly going to enforce an enlarged air defence identification zone over international waters.

It doesn't sound very dangerous, but it's highly contentious. It forces aircraft to give prior notice or risk challenge by China's air force. It was declared directly over territory also claimed by Japan in a fast-escalating territorial dispute.

Bishop carpeted the Chinese ambassador Ma Zhaoxu and publicised the fact.

Japan's provocative act was when its Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an official visit to pay his respects to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine a month later.

Again, this doesn't sound very dangerous, but it inflamed opinion in Beijing and Seoul because it is the official shrine to Japan's war dead, including the war criminals who led Japan's invasions of China and South Korea.

An official Japanese prime ministerial visit is a predictable affront to both because it implies an unapologetic jingoism. In this case, too, Australia criticised the provocation, but it did so sotto voce, behind closed doors.

"I don't mind us rebuking China," Dastyari says, "but we should be equally saying something to Japan about the Yasukuni Shrine."

But while Beijing would agree with Dastyari, he's dwelling on it much longer than China itself. There is no sign of serious, real problems in the relationship with China.

In calling Japan "Australia's best friend in Asia", Abbott was merely repeating a formula that John Howard used when he was prime minister. Australia's ties with Beijing survived and thrived.

Bishop's point that the overall economic relationship with the US, including investment, makes the US, not China, Australia's economic best friend, may be cute but it's not wrong.

And Dastyari is wrong to claim her statement is in any way "at the expense" of relations with China.

As Howard demonstrated, and as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard also demonstrated, it's entirely possible to improve relations with all the great powers at once.

In fact, it would be a betrayal of the national interest not to. And this is exactly what Abbott will seek to do as he embarks on the three-nation trip to the region he announced on Monday.

He will travel to China, Japan and South Korea. Relations with all three are in solid shape.

Abbott's government has already concluded a free-trade agreement with one of these three, South Korea, and is making good progress on the other two.

Yes, with China and Japan in parallel. China has moved beyond Bishop's rebuke, or any of the other perceived Abbott government slights, as all countries do when they are getting on with the big issues.

The whole concept of a "zero sum" in Australia's world affairs, where progress with one country can only happen at the expense of another, is sandbox stuff.

The most recent events actually support the idea that there can be constructive competition, that when Australia improves ties with one, this can lead others to ratchet up their efforts in response.

The trade negotiations with China and Japan both appear to have gained impetus from the success of the deal with South Korea.

As for publicly ranking countries, Dastyari is right. It's gratuitous and juvenile.

But if the Labor Party detects an Abbott "pivot" away from China, it's more upset about it than Beijing itself.

Labor should wish Abbott a successful trip. In the national interest.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.