Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 08:43 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 08:43 | SYDNEY

China-Australia FTA busts a stubborn myth



18 November 2014 18:08

We've all heard of Mythbusters, the TV program that tests whether common assumptions are based in reality or myth.

The conclusion of negotiations for the China-Australia FTA, President Xi Jinping's elevation of Australia-China relations from the strategic partnership (agreed during the Gillard prime ministership) to a comprehensive strategic partnership, and the agreement by Japan, Australia and the US on the sidelines of the G20 in Brisbane to jointly develop submarine technology definitively bust two long-held myths about Australian foreign policy and its Asian engagement project.

Yet these magically combined myths have been busted before, only to reappear as major underlying assumptions to much of the commentary on Australian strategic and foreign policy under Prime Minister Abbott.

The first myth is the partisan one that Liberal governments and prime ministers are less able to manage relations with East Asian states than Labor ones. Michael Wesley did a masterful job debunking this myth in relation to the Howard years in The Howard Paradox. From his earliest, understandably tentative, days as leader, Abbott, a confessed foreign policy non-expert, has faced a similar barrage of at times caustic commentary about alleged Asian faux pas and the assumed damage they were causing to Australia's relations with key East Asian states.

Yet, just over a year into its first term, the Abbott Government can claim to have gone faster and further than the Howard Government in deepening relations with the US, China, Japan, India, South Korea, the Philippines and Singapore, with the new Jokowi Administration offering opportunities to include Indonesia on this long list.

The Liberal Party's traditional focus on bilateral relationships over regional bodies has continued under the Abbott Government, and Abbott's critics argue that, with the geopolitical situation in East Asia becoming more uncertain, this focus is having damaging consequences. But in fact these uncertainties provide more opportunities for Australia to forge closer relations with major powers, and Abbott is well placed to take advantage of them. The Abbott paradox is in full swing.

The second strategic myth is that closer relations with the US, to which the Liberals are seen as being more prone than Labor, are detrimental to Australia's key relationships in Asia. Australia's Asian engagement policy would benefit from a more 'autonomous' and 'independent' relationship with the US and its ally Japan, it is argued.

The most sustained and inaccurate criticism of the Abbott Government's foreign policy is that closer relations with Japan and the US will undercut relations with China, with Beijing likely to impose costs on the bilateral economic relationship. The exact opposite now seems to have occurred, with the signing of the historic Japan-Australia FTA earlier this year clearly an important late-term stimulus to the decade-long China-Australia trade talks.

It seems Chinese and Australian policy makers are better able to separate economic policy benefits from strategic policy concerns than many of us commentators.

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