Tony Abbott is about to depart on the most important international visit of his prime ministership thus far. Over the next week he will visit Japan, South Korea and China, three of Australia's top trading partners and key powers in Australia's strategic future.
Canberra's preference will be for trade and economic opportunity to dominate these talks: Mr Abbott will be accompanied by a large business delegation and – in a welcome sign of federal-state cooperation – several state premiers. A priority will be to move free trade agreement negotiations with Japan and China closer to conclusion.
But the most delicate diplomatic challenges of the tour may well be about security. Australia's greatest foreign and strategic policy problem in recent months has been the pressure to choose between China and Japan.
As I noted in a recent article, Australia has been caught up in a propaganda war between the two rivals, with their very different views on maritime disputes and the wartime atrocities of a lifetime ago. Instability has become the new normal in relations between the two wealthiest, most consequential powers in Asia.
Much has been made of Mr Abbott's fresh focus on Japan as a security partner, not quite an ally but seemingly not far from it. This at a time when Japan, under Shinzo Abe, is taking steps to 'normalise' its defence policies, including in allowing defence exports, expanding scope for military cooperation with others and slightly increasing defence spending.
Some commentators are warning that Prime Minister Abbott could let his judgment be swayed by sentiment rather than diplomatic reason. After all, he has called Japan Australia's 'closest friend in Asia'. (Mind you, one of those commentators, Hugh White, has previously called Japan something not entirely dissimilar, Australia's 'most successful relationship' in Asia.)
Contrary to some perceptions, Australia has not taken sides on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands maritime dispute between China and Japan. [fold]
Australia is right not to recognise one country's territorial claims over another's. But Australia is also right to support the principle that differences should be settled by means other than force. That, in my view, was the underlying reason for the Abbott Government's decisions in late 2013 to state its opposition to coercive efforts to change the status quo in the East China Sea and, in particular, China's new air defence identification zone.
That said, there is no question China has been seriously unhappy with Australia's stance on these issues. So the forthcoming visit to Bejing is a vital opportunity to signal that Australia's foreign and security policies towards the Asian powers are based on principles, interests and mutual respect.
An Australian prime minister has nothing to gain from delivering grand pronouncements or surprises while in Beijing, as Kevin Rudd discovered. Much has been made of the reference in Mr Abbott's recent Canberra Press Club speech to possible future Chinese domestic 'liberalisation', with the implication that this would be a condition for closer Australia-China relations. It is unlikely, however, that Mr Abbott will go beyond such ambiguous and carefully-worded statements while in Beijing. His 2012 speech there as Opposition leader was not especially provocative (indeed, I suspect he said nothing that the then Labor Government did not privately think) and it is difficult to imagine him going further as head of government.
Instead, on the security front, Mr Abbott has an exceptional opportunity to underscore Australia's determination to work with the major Asian powers against common challenges. Australia's coordination of the international search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 – working closely with Chinese, Japanese and South Korean assets — is a reminder of this country's potential as a convener for security cooperation on transnational problems like humanitarian assistance, stabilisation missions, counter-piracy and search-and-rescue. Australia can and should become a partner of choice for China in legitimate security efforts to help its nationals abroad.
Tragedy has here provided Australia with a chance for sensible security diplomacy. Likewise, the predictable unpredictability of North Korea – amid recent artillery barrages and rumours of a fourth nuclear test – offers a moment for Mr Abbott to emphasise the need for Australia to work with the other North Asian powers to manage a common danger.
On that note, Mr Abbott could usefully send a signal to the US too. With President Obama due to visit Tokyo and Seoul later this month, Australia has a chance to help shape a shared message by America's three key Asian allies – Australia, Japan and South Korea — about the need for a credible US rebalance to this region.
Photo by REUTERS/Jason Reed.