Balancing act: Tony Abbott.

Balancing act: Tony Abbott. Photo: Dean Sewell

Next week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott flies north to visit Japan, South Korea and China. Abbott hopes his trip will be all about trade and is taking a huge business delegation along. But north-east Asia is very tense – and Abbott has chosen to take sides.  He will be very lucky if his trade agenda does not get buried by politics. It could turn out to be the most difficult overseas visit an Australian Prime Minister has made in many years.

Japan’s relations with China and South Korea are far worse than at any time since the Second World War. Striking the right balance in Australia’s relations with these three countries is therefore harder than it has been before. At the same time, getting the balance right becomes more and more important as they take a growing share of our trade, and play a growing role in wider regional affairs.  

Abbott will find it especially hard to find the right balance because he is already leaning heavily one way. Since taking office, Abbott has dramatically talked up the relationship with Japan, angering China and South Korea by calling Japan "Australia’s best friend in Asia" and a "strong ally". Against the background of current tensions, both countries have seen Abbott’s explicit upgrading of the relationship with Japan as a deliberate downgrading of relations with them.  

This has been made abundantly clear to Canberra, privately in Seoul and very publicly in Beijing where Foreign Minister Julie Bishop received one of the bluntest dressings-down in recent memory. The Chinese and South Koreans, therefore, assume Abbott understands that he must unambiguously dial back his pro-Japan rhetoric before he calls, or he will face a chilly reception.  They will be watching what he says in Tokyo, where he stops first, very carefully indeed.   

No doubt his officials have told him all this, and Bishop seems to have got the message. Recently, she clearly repudiated Abbott’s "best friend in Asia" line.  

But has Abbott himself listened? The evidence is not reassuring. Last week he gave a major speech to the Asia Society in Canberra, to set the scene for his trip. His speech will be read with great care in the three capitals his is visiting, so it needed to be written just as carefully.

Unfortunately, it was either very carelessly drafted or it was deliberately intended to defy Beijing by restating his lean towards Tokyo. The speech once more put the relationship with Japan on a pedestal, singling it out as "one of the most mutually beneficial bilateral relationships in global history". Big call.

What is worse, it seemed to deliberately downgrade the relationship with Beijing.  At one point he said: "It’s hard to overstate the importance and the strength of Australia’s relationship with China". But in the next paragraph, he quite clearly distanced himself from the idea that we have a "strategic partnership" with China, which is how President Xi Jinping and former PM Julia Gillard described the relationship in Beijing a year ago.

Instead, he said: "As liberalisation spreads from the economy into other elements of Chinese life, I am confident that Australia will be a valued friend and strategic partner … to the Chinese people and government."

The italics in that quote are mine, not Abbott’s. They are the words that Beijing will focus on. Their implication is quite plain. Australia is not yet a "valued friend and strategic partner" of China, and we will not be until China’s politics are liberalised.  

Beijing will be displeased. Since John Howard’s day, China’s leaders have made it plain that a good economic relationship depends on the development of a satisfactory rapport on political and strategic issues, and they are especially allergic to outside pressure for political reform. Abbott’s "trade now, friendship later" model is not acceptable to them.

So this is a bad prelude to Abbott’s trip. It is all the more important that, before he reaches Seoul and Beijing, he finds a chance to let some of the air out of his inflated language on Japan. Unfortunately, the only chance he will have to do that is in Tokyo itself. That will not be easy and his host, Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, will do nothing to help him, because Abe would be delighted to see Australia’s relations with Beijing and Seoul hit a pothole.

It is just as likely, in fact, that Abbott will get carried away in Tokyo and talk up the relationship with Japan even further. That would turn a difficult trip into a disastrous one, for Abbott and for Australia. If Abbott still believes, as he said last year, that these political questions have no impact on trade, he is in for a rude shock.  And if things go badly it will be Abbott’s fault, because things need not be this hard.  

Abbott says his foreign policy is all about trade, but so far, it has been all about sentiment.  The best explanation of Abbott’s turn towards Japan is the simplest. He fears and resents China’s growing power, and has no idea of how Australia should respond to it.  

Hugh White is columnist for The Age and is professor of strategic studies at the strategic and defence studies centre, Australian National University.