With Abbott officially sworn in as Prime Minister of Australia, the rhetoric of the campaign trail is being swept aside and replaced by the tough questions going forward – how will the Liberal vision be translated into reality? With Mandarin speaking Rudd out of the picture, how exactly will the Abbott leadership shape our relationship with China moving forward?
For many in the Australia-China sphere, Abbott’s lack of foreign policy experience and his orthodox conservative principles are of concern. Despite commenting that “Chinese people should be natural liberal conservatives with their respect for tradition and aptitude for business”, the extent to which Abbott realistically appreciates the sensitivities of Australia’s crucial relationship with China is questionable. In a speech to Austcham Beijing in 2012, Tony Abbott ruffled feathers by declaring that “it would rarely be in Australia’s national interest to allow a foreign government or its agencies to control an Australian business”.
However, being the pragmatist that he is, the strength and significance of Australia’s trade and economic relationship with China has not been lost. Abbott has commented that “the best guarantee of Australian participation in the Asian century is a strong economy”. With Julie Bishop as Minister for Foreign Affairs, we can safely assume that at the very least, economic diplomacy with China will remain at the crux of any decision making process.
Furthermore, the Coalition’s New Colombo Plan is an ambitious plan to promote active Australian engagement in the Asian Century. The plan looks to support school leavers studying a foreign language, mass tertiary programs and internships placements and proposes to make Asia study “the norm”. Should the plan be successfully implemented, Australia will benefit immeasurably from a generation of China-literate youths. This will not only cultivate a pool of young talent for businesses, but will generate a two-way flow of fresh Australia-China relations in the economic, cultural and social spheres.
The immediate action plan moving forward is a positive indication of Abbott’s leadership direction. The decision to visit Jakarta and Beijing as part of his first trips overseas as Prime Minister speaks loudly of the relationships Abbott recognises as needing attention: Abbott needs to understand that a lot of catching up needs to be done to move our relationship with China beyond the economic sphere, in order to form genuine diplomatic ties. A lot of hard work needs to be done moving forward, but he’s headed in the right direction.
For those who are concerned about Abbott’s orthodox conservative principles, it would not be unfair to say that they will likely be compromised when political expediency demands, and indeed, there is much to lose should the Sino-Australian relationship falter.
P.S. At the time of writing, Tony Abbott is yet to sign up to Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging phenomenon. If Kevin Rudd’s 529,794 followers is anything to go by, Abbott’s got some serious catching up to do!
*Illustration – Igor Saktor; Source – The Australian