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Australia-China relations: Abbott benefits from Australia's MH370 search role

Australia-China relations: Abbott benefits from Australia's MH370 search role
Published 11 Apr 2014 

In case you hadn't heard, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is in China this week, telling everyone within earshot that Australia is open for business. To prove the point, he's traveling with a bevy of business elite, including Kerry Stokes, James Packer and Andrew Forrest. 

In this visit, Mr Abbott realised he needed to talk trade and nothing else in order to distract from his Government's early China missteps. 

It looks like he is succeeding. In Chinese press coverage of Mr Abbott's visit so far, there's been no reminiscing about Ms Bishop's criticism of China's East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone. State-media mentions of the Prime Minister's description of Japan as 'Australia's best friend in Asia' have been few and far between. On Chinese social media, Abbott's trip to Tokyo earlier this week made him collateral damage in the steady stream of anti-Japanese vitriol. But that much is par for the course for any Western leader visiting Japan. 

Mr Abbott even seems to be making headway on an Australia-China free-trade agreement. Nine years in the works, the Prime Minister says he is 'confident' a deal can be secured by the end of this year. Positive signs emerged when he met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Wednesday at the Boao Forum for Asia. Xinhua quoted Premier Li as saying:

China hopes the two sides advance relevant negotiation in the spirit of mutual benefit, pragmatism and mutual accommodation, in efforts to score a balanced and high-level agreement.

That's about as enthusiastic about a trade deal as a top Chinese politician gets. [fold]

So does Mr Abbott deserve praise for managing to talk business and distract from politics on his trip, and hence reset the bilateral relationship? Yes and no. 

Yes, because the Prime Minister had the smarts to focus on trade. No, because Mr Abbott isn't responsible for distracting China from his Government's bilateral missteps. That honour goes to the MH370 tragedy. 

For weeks, Beijing has stressed through state-controlled media that it is doing everything it can to assist in the search for the flight's wreckage. It's as much about deflecting potential criticism of government incompetence as it about ensuring peace for relatives of the victims. 

Abbott's timely visit to China offers Beijing an opportunity to stress Australia's capable handling of the search operation. Major news outlets in China have taken pains to stress a cooperative working relationship with Australia. One widely circulated article is case in point: 

As Premier Li Keqiang attended a ceremony welcoming Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to China, there was an unusual scene: after reviewing the guard of honour, the premiers (sic) did not follow conventions and walk toward the route set aside for talks, but rather halted in front of the reviewing stand in eager conversation... It emerged later the two discussed the search operation for MH370... Premier Li thanked Mr. Abbott for again informing him of the search's progress, and expressed a high degree of appreciation for Australia's hard work.

A similar theme has played out in other Chinese media pieces covering Abbott's first days in China. He is set to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping today in Beijing, an in all likelihood MH370 will again feature prominently in both the leaders' conversation and subsequent news coverage. If Abbott manages to steer talk with Xi straight from MH370 to free trade, his trip will have been a success. It's a success, mind you, borne of a tragedy. 

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