Robert Ayson is a Visiting Fellow with the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, on research leave from the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
I'm torn between two competing reactions to the very early stages of Australian foreign policy under the Abbott Government. On the one hand, I'm having a fair few déjà vu moments, as the approach seems in many respects to be a copy of the Key Government's approach to foreign policy back in New Zealand. On the other, I'm struck by the silence from the Abbott Government on one key issue.
First, the déjà vu moments. Three come to mind. First, the commercial dimension of Australia's external engagement is being prioritised. Julie Bishop signalled this possibility before the election with a strong push for Australia moving forward on its free trade agreements, including with China. That's an agreement New Zealand has had for years and which Australia lacks with its number one trading partner.
The way Mr Abbott has set up his cabinet — with Bishop having Foreign Affairs but not Trade, which has gone to Andrew Robb — is also an imitation of the New Zealand situation, where Murray McCully has Foreign Affairs and Tim Groser has the trade portfolio, reflecting his background as a free trade agreement negotiator.
The replication of this split signals the strong commercial focus in Australian foreign policy. In fact I don't buy the argument that an Abbott Government will be unambitious in foreign policy. It will be ambitious, but its ambitions will be orientated around the creation of wealth. Resource Minister MacFarlane's depiction of Australia as an energy superpower should confirm that.
The third kiwi imitation act comes in the Abbott Government's plans to integrate AusAID back into DFAT, which has already generated a mixed response. This is just the sort of move despised by aid policy purists, who argue that development is its own inherent reward. But for those who see nothing wrong in making aid spending subject to Australian foreign policy interests, including commercial ones, it makes some sense. We will know that the New Zealand model is really in play if Australian aid policy is reshaped to emphasise the participation by aid recipients in the global market.
Now for the big sound of silence: we know little about how the new government intends to conduct its relations with China. This the most significant foreign policy issue for every country in the Asia Pacific and it is important regardless of how relations between the US and China are going or the position one takes between them.
How the Abbott Government views a rising China is of real significance. What aspects in that rise are welcome? What parts are concerning? What does the new government plan to do? How does this effect it's diplomacy with others in the region?
For now, the copying of the kiwi line has become the default position for the Abbott Government on China: a policy centred on an FTA. But China is much more than an economy. And Australia is even less able than smaller and less strategically important New Zealand to pretend that it is possible to have an almost purely commercial relationship with the Middle Kingdom.
So how about a major early speech by Tony Abbott delivered in Beijing outlining Canberra's vision for the Sino-Australian relationship? That might work well, not least because there is very little chance of the new prime minister lecturing his hosts in Mandarin on human rights. That's not a déjà vu moment many would welcome.