Well, all glory is indeed fleeting.
Having just given The Interpreter a pat on the back for our Asia coverage, I'm embarrassed to admit that we are late to Prime Minister Abbott's Asia Society speech, delivered on Tuesday to set the scene for his early-April Asia trip.
The speech is trade focused, and the PM has a good story to tell on that subject: 'While in Korea, I hope to witness the signing of the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement. In Japan, I hope to help finalise the Japan-Australia FTA. In China, I hope to announce substantial progress towards freer trade. This is the trifecta of trade we are working towards.'
But he also talked about the evolution of China's political system in ways that are unlikely to endear him to Beijing:
I want to say that the transformation of China is a watershed in human history. Lifting hundreds of millions of people into the middle class in just a generation is perhaps the most spectacular advance in human welfare ever accomplished...
...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, as well as a rock-solid-reliable economic partner, to the Chinese people and government.
China’s achievement mirrors Japan’s and Korea’s, some decades earlier – only on a larger scale.
Japan and Korea have been strong democracies as well as powerhouse economic for decades. I honour the Japanese and Korean people, not only for their economic achievements, but for their steadfast commitment to liberal democratic values.
It hardly needs saying that the Chinese Communist Party is acutely sensitive to suggestions that it needs to liberalise, particularly if that implies, as Abbott's remarks surely do, an evolution towards multi-party democracy. That's not to say upsetting China should be avoided at all costs, but I do wonder what is to be gained by such comments as Abbott's officials negotiate a trade deal with China.
It's notable too that Abbott seems to make Australia's friendship and partnership with China contingent on such liberalisation. This implies that Australia can never be more than a 'rock-solid-reliable economic partner' until then, and thus sets pretty clear boundaries for the relationship (it also suggests that Australia's friendship and partnership is solely contingent on China's internal political structure, though even a democratic China would surely have many interests that clash with those of Australia).
Lastly, there is an air of historical inevitability to these remarks, with their implication that the spread of liberalisation from the economic to the political sphere is just a matter of time. Again, this won't please Beijing's leaders, though at least they will find the teleology familiar from their studies of Marx.