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Abbott Will Be in Tune With Asia

John Lee

With a comfortable victory for the conservative Coalition party all but certain in this weekend’s Australian general election, thoughts in the region are turning to what Tony Abbott’s foreign policy will look like. There are good reasons for optimism.

Incumbent Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd charges that Mr. Abbott lacks the nuance to manage key relationships in the region, and that his straight-talking tendencies would make him an embarrassment on the international stage. Mr. Abbott promises to follow the same principles that guided his mentor, former Prime Minister John Howard. That has led some left-of-center critics to accuse him of being old fashioned. But the reality is that over the past few years the region has moved closer to the conservative set of policy principles that will shape Mr. Abbott’s international relations policy agenda.

Despite his lack of foreign policy credentials, there are a number of reasons why Mr. Abbott is likely to be a much more effective player in Asia than his detractors believe. The first is that much of Asia now shares his conservative instincts about the importance of Washington’s strategic role in the region, having come to the realization that any regional effort to check Chinese assertiveness can’t succeed without the help of American power.

Although Australia is one of America’s five formal treaty allies in Asia, these instincts are by no means universally held by its policy elites. Former Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser have denounced the American “pivot” to Asia and condemned the decision to host U.S. marines in Darwin as a provocative action against China. Many Australian academics believe that Canberra ought to back away from the alliance in order to play a more independent and creative middle-power role.

Eschewing any transformative strategic realignment as irresponsible and fraught with unintended consequences, Mr. Abbott’s conservative tradition in the Australian context holds the view that the country’s leverage in the region is considerably advanced because of its alliance with the United States, not in spite of it. In any event, his “alliance first” approach will be welcomed by much of the region because Washington, as a geographically distant power, requires allies and partners to host its military assets so that it can remain fully engaged in the region.

Second, it is true that Mr. Abbott’s view that values are ultimately inseparable from national interest has attracted domestic criticism. A notable instance was a July 2012 speech in Beijing in which Mr. Abbott raised the issue of political reform in China, arguing that its people would prosper even further if they enjoyed better rule of law and the freedom to choose their leaders. A number of Australian critics viewed this exhortation as an insensitive and unnecessary slight against the country’s largest trading partner, indicating that Mr. Abbott is unsuited to the subtleties of diplomacy in the region.

However, Mr. Abbott’s position will play well with the other strategic players in Asia, which are democracies like Australia: America, Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Democratic governance which is even enshrined in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Charter is now generally accepted as the final destination for legitimate governments in Asia.

Moreover, it is now widely recognized that China will find it extremely difficult to escape the so-called middle-income trap without establishing liberal institutions such as the rule of law and greater transparency in its political-economy. This will dilute the power and role of the Chinese Communist Party but possibly establish the basic groundwork for future political reform. Far from the insensitive words of a Western-trained leader with beliefs unsuited to Asia, Mr. Abbott’s instincts are in line with regional hopes for and expectations of China, even if most capitals are reluctant to say so.

Third, the Opposition Leader is openly critical of the fact that under the previous Julia Gillard government, Australian defense spending, now 1.59% of GDP, has fallen to its lowest levels since 1938. Although there is no set timetable to increase the spending to what he considers an acceptable level of at least 2% of GDP, Mr. Abbott has pledged to quarantine defense from any future budget cuts. If Australia does not arrest the decline in strategic and military relevance, it will lose its prestige and influence in the region.

None of this is to say that Mr. Abbott comes fully prepared for success in the region.

Canberra continues to have an awkward relationship with Jakarta, which runs the risk of dominating Australian attention and resources. The coalition’s pledge to stop asylum seekers from departing Indonesia will make it even more fraught. Mr. Abbott and his team will also have to learn the ropes of Asean-led multilateral diplomatic processes, which have ramped up since John Howard’s tenure. He will need to follow the example of small and nimble states such as Singapore, and develop the patience and temperament to further his democratic agenda.

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