Commentary | 10 April 2014

Abbott is playing a well-balanced hand in Asia

Abbott is playing a well-balanced hand in Asia

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

10 April 2014

Abbott is playing a well-balanced hand in Asia

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

10 April 2014

Executive Summary

Tony Abbott's visit to north Asia this week is a bit like the film Rashomon by the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa – each observer has a radically different interpretation of events.

Some grim narratives have warned that Abbott's visit would be a diplomatic disaster. The timing of Japan's international legal defeat on whaling, courtesy of Australia, would sabotage chances for closer Japan ties.

Alternately, the success of those ties would itself be bad news. By forging a security partnership with Japan Abbott's Australia would in one clumsy swoop alienate not only China but South Korea, too.

According to this tragic rendering, given by some commentators in Australia as well as China, Abbott is emboldening his conservative counterpart Shinzo Abe in the pursuit of Japanese military modernisation, a whitewashing of imperial Japan's bloody past, and a willingness to risk confrontation with China over disputed islands.

Then again, if you accept the official version, the northward progress of Abbott and his 600-strong entourage of ministers, premiers, officials and corporate royalty is proof that Australia can indeed be all things to all countries.

Thus Canberra can accomplish windfall free trade agreements with Japan and South Korea while advancing a third with China. We can historically deepen defence ties with Japan while not unsettling either of its neighbours, whatever their tensions with Tokyo.Strengthening ties with Japan

The more cold-eyed assessment is this. So far, Abbott has surprised the sceptics with the effective pursuit of Australia's interests in north Asia, though there are downsides to be managed.

Australia is strengthening security links with Japan, not to the point of a mutual-obligation alliance – a word the PM would be well-advised to stop using – but in ways that will make both countries more capable of protecting their rights in a contested region.

This is not so radical. Abbott is enhancing a security partnership with Japan that began a decade ago, when Australian and Japanese forces were working together in Iraq and tsunami-hit Indonesia.

Developments in Tokyo this week, notably agreement to start negotiating a framework deal on defence trade and technology, build on the security declaration concluded between John Howard government and Abe's previous administration in 2007.

That was the first strand in a web of declarations and dialogues throughout Indo-Pacific Asia, bringing US allies and partners together in non-binding co-operation – sharing assessments, training forces, talking about doing more. Australia, South Korea, India, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia: almost everyone is doing it.

China may be right that an unspoken motivation for all of this is to balance against the uncertainties surrounding its growing military power. Another involves questions about how long America will shoulder most of the burden of regional stability. But a lot of this concern is China's to allay.

Much has been made of the business side of Abbott's security talks in Tokyo. Speculation has mounted that Australia's submerged agenda is to gain access to Japan's renowned and closely-held submarine technology.

Of course Chinese military planners will be dismayed at the possibility of Japan further eroding its self-imposed ban on defence exports, possibly supplying advanced capabilities to a string of maritime partners. But when Chinese analysts warn that Australia needs to show a more independent foreign policy, they should be taken at their word: that means independence from Chinese pressure too.Shades of grey in China

Wisely, Mr Abbott did not overplay the sentiment and rhetoric in Japan: he spoke of shared values, but also alluded to the stain of Japan's wartime past, and how Australians had nonetheless moved to reconciliation. If any of that upset South Korea, it was not apparent in President Park's warm speech or her keenness to build defence ties with Australia.

While in South Korea, Abbott evinced a black-and-white worldview, but if there's one place left to distinguish right and wrong it is surely the DMZ between the free South and the state Michael Kirby recently equated with Nazi Germany.

China, meanwhile, is a place for pragmatism and shades of grey. Here Abbott would be well advised to uphold a self-respecting Australia's support for principles of non-coercion and freedom of navigation. But, unlike Kevin Rudd, he should resist the temptation to offer China's leaders uncalled-for public advice.

Right now Australia's professionalism, steadiness and genuine goodwill in the search for flight MH370 underscores that this country can be a partner of choice in China's legitimate security goal of looking after its citizens far from home.

Mr Abbott has a chance to deepen that kind of security partnership with China while not pretending that strategic trust is achievable any time soon.

Asia's security future is unscripted, but a mix of pragmatic diplomacy and strategic balancing is the best realistic option we have to keep it from ending in tears.