Abbott's East Asia trip reveals Aussie priorities

By Han Feng Source:Global Times Published: 2014-4-14 23:03:01

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott just concluded an official visit to East Asia. China was his last but most important stop. 

Sino-Australian relations were relatively stagnant while the previous leading party, the Australian Labor Party, was in power. However, during this time China became Australia's top foreign trade partner. Currently, China is playing a closer role in terms of Australian foreign trade and economic development.

After his success in the 2013 election, it was widely believed that Abbott and his government would seek more stable and constructive relations.

And there was a good start with personal contact after Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang met Abbott during two different regional summits in 2013.

But investments involving Chinese company Huawei in Australia and incidents relating to the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea indicated that the new governments on both sides had conceptual differences at the bilateral level and the regional level both politically and economically. 

China and Australia have focused heavily on domestic social readjustment, so more opportunities are created for cooperation.

Abbott's trip was aimed at bringing momentum to Australia's structural readjustment, including fostering new industries, boosting the restructuring of the financial industry, as well as promoting free trade arrangements and economic relations.

East Asian countries are closely tied to the Australian economy. The regional economic performance made Australia realize the importance of engaging in Asia in the 1990s because of East Asia's dominance in Australian foreign trade.

At the same time, after successfully joining the East Asia Summit in 2005, Australia has enjoyed its position in economic liberalization at the regional level, such as FTA negotiations with key regional members.

Abbott's first official visit to East Asia focused heavily on the FTA arrangements. We can easily see the importance of his visit, since the 600-people team included many state leaders and a huge business group, as well as high-ranking Australian government officials.

Balancing Australia's Western-oriented strategic links and the country's East Asian regional economic engagement has been a challenge for Abbott and his government. The US' regional policy is part of its global strategy, not fully in line with the regional political and economic situation, and Sino-US relations are gearing toward a new type of major power relations.

In East Asia, Australia is also exploring how to balance old and new powers.

Australia is afraid that the regional role of its ally, the US, will decline and this will affect the traditional framework and potentially cause instability. Australia wants this role to last longer and avoid any dramatic changes.

Australia is cautiously strengthening political relations with regional powers in different ways.

Japan has been labeled its best friend in Asia. And by attending a National Security Council meeting during his stay in Tokyo, Abbott was seeking more strategic cooperation between the two countries.

China is also being cultivated as a friend, but via more political exchanges, for instance attending the Boao Forum of Asia in Hainan.

Economically, the FTA has been highlighted generally as positive for Australia in the new regional arrangement, which includes elements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, in addition to bilateral agreements.

Abbott's East Asian trip is his second official visit abroad after his Indonesian trip. It clearly shows that the Abbott administration is shaping Australia's foreign priorities and regional governance.

Apart from the strong relations with the US, Canberra is playing more positive role by maintaining a balance within the immediate region.

The author is a professor and deputy director-general at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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