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Abbott’s Asia trip comes off – for now

Prime minister Tony Abbott’s diplomatic and trade mission to northeast Asia can be hailed as a success. Overall, it met its main objectives. The trip has strengthened the already deepening relationship…

Signing a Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan was the highlight of Tony Abbott’s whirlwind northeast Asia trip, which also took in China and South Korea. EPA/Kimmasa Mayama

Prime minister Tony Abbott’s diplomatic and trade mission to northeast Asia can be hailed as a success. Overall, it met its main objectives.

The trip has strengthened the already deepening relationship with Japan. Crucially, Abbott secured a long-contested Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with Japan. While the EPA is highly compromised, with criticism mounting from various sectors as specific details of the agreement emerge, it does promise substantial economic benefits, including wider access to Japanese markets than enjoyed by any other country.

As well as the EPA, plans for closer military and intelligence co-operation are bringing the security partnership between Japan and Australia ever closer towards the level of a military alliance in practice, if not yet formally in name.

However, closer security ties raises concerns over Abbott’s uncritical embrace of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s revisionist nationalism. This is especially so as it becomes more likely that the Abe government will soon reinterpret Japan’s constitution to allow participation in “collective self-defence”.

While not sharing the same level of security co-operation, Australia’s relations with Korea have also been reinforced. Abbott’s visit to Seoul saw the formal signing of the previously agreed free trade agreement (FTA) between Australia and Korea and condemnation by Abbott of North Korea as an “outlaw state which is a threat to world peace”. Abbott “faced off” against North Korean soldiers on a visit to the demilitarised zone that divides the Koreas.

China continues to be the far more complex and potentially fractious relationship for Australia to negotiate. While highly displeased with Australia growing closer to Japan, China may yet be willing to overlook this in order to gain any benefits from a potential FTA.

Securing preferential access to Australian commodities would assist China’s ongoing economic growth, and so allow the upgrading of the People’s Liberation Army to progress. With a large business delegation in tow, Abbott sought to reassure Beijing over Australia’s closer ties with Japan. He declared at a business forum in Boao that:

Australia is not in China to do a deal, but to be a friend.

Notably, though, Australia and China are not “best friends”. Abbott has already handed Japan that label.

While a FTA with China, Australia’s largest trading partner, may not have been concluded yet, much diplomatic progress appears to have been made towards reaching that goal. This culminated in Abbott meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Easing restrictions on investment in Australia by Chinese state-owned corporations may be the last hurdle to clear for a FTA to be finally completed.

Abbott has imposed a September deadline to complete the trifecta of northeast Asian FTAs.

China continues to be the region’s more complex and potentially fractious relationship for Australia to negotiate. EPA/Parker Song

The Abbott government can take credit for finally signing EPAs with Korea and Japan, and for making progress on one with China. It achieved what Labor failed to finalise given that FTA negotiations with Japan commenced in 2007. The talks with Korea and China began in a similar timeframe.

In its defence, Labor could claim the efforts of the Rudd-Gillard governments were instrumental in progressing the instigation and eventual achievement of the agreements, particularly under former trade minister Craig Emerson. But whichever party was in power, it was diplomats from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who primarily conducted the long, unglamorous bureaucratic slog of the negotiations.

Nevertheless, it is the government which signs the agreement that gets the triumphant photo opportunity with foreign leaders and the fortunate prestige of securing the final result on their watch. This is particularly the case when the results of negotiations are so uncertain for so long, with the risk of failure at any stage.

Abbott’s FTA missions can be regarded as broadly in sync with America’s overall neoliberal trade agenda in the region. However, the Australia-Japan EPA strengthens the diplomatic hand of Japan in its Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations with the US. It provides the example of a compromise deal on agricultural and other tariffs against the hardline, zero tariff position of the US.

TPP talks between Japan and the US this week failed to reach any agreement ahead of US president Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Japan later this month.

Beyond regional differences over trade, Australia’s growing defence ties with Japan complement the steadily increasing deployment of US forces to the Northern Territory as part of the America’s strategic “pivot” of the majority of its maritime forces to the Pacific. The Trilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Japan and Australia already has the potential to firmly entrench a more integrated US-led alliance system in the Asia-Pacific.

This alliance could eventually extend to include India if the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party wins this year’s Indian elections. This may be a possible step towards fulfilling Abe’s vision of a “security diamond” alliance among the four major democracies of the Asia-Pacific, aimed at curbing China’s growing maritime assertiveness.

While the US continually denies its pivot is aimed at strategically containing China, it is doubtful that Beijing believes any such reassurances, including those of friendship coming from Abbott. Should Australia finally manage to claim its ultimate diplomatic prize of a FTA with China, its strength could be undermined by the deteriorating geopolitical situation in the Asia-Pacific.

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20 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Evans

    Retired

    I get the feeling that we may be being used by China to weaken the "security diamond" or at least used as an entrée to the group. The proposal for Chinese military exercises in Australia could give China the prospect of keeping one member of the diamond very close and allow it indirect interaction with other members. Not clear yet where this might lead us. Equally we could be being used by the USA as a way to get close to China without the risks of a direct approach.

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  2. Bruce Shaw

    Retired Hurt

    "As well as the EPA, plans for closer military and intelligence co-operation are bringing the security partnership between Japan and Australia ever closer towards the level of a military alliance in practice, if not yet formally in name."

    and

    "China continues to be the far more complex and potentially fractious relationship for Australia to negotiate. While highly displeased with Australia growing closer to Japan, China may yet be willing to overlook this in order to gain any benefits from a potential FTA."

    Suggesting that "China may yet be willing to overlook this" seems rather optimistic don't you think?

    My thoughts are that this simply presents China with a trump card to play when they get down to it.

    If China can potentially provide the greatest benefit to Australia out of the three then surely the smartest strategy would have been to see the Chinese first.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Bruce Shaw

      " If China can potentially provide the greatest benefit to Australia out of the three then surely the smartest strategy would have been to see the Chinese first. "
      Not quite so Bruce for whereas obviously there will be some people who could have your line of thinking, U expect that there could also be an opposite line of thinking that those in final talks would have the benefit of seeing what had already occurred.
      As it is, China, Korea, Japan and Australia recognise that they are all different countries with different economies and agreements with Japan and Korea were either ready or closer, that possibly giving some greater impetus to an agreement progress with China.

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  3. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    No recognition among the journalists that had the previous government won the last election that they would have done exactly what Abbott is claiming credit for.
    In fact the governor general could have done exactly what Abbott did, sign off on the previous government's efforts.
    Abbott is, at this age off his administration is merely a cipher, yet journo's continue their pathetic hero worship of "Dear Tony".
    It is, IMHO, just a continuation of their serial adulation of Abbott since 2009.
    Where is the free market competition in the "journosphere"?

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to James Hill

      It would seem that the journalists are doing a fine job James, just as this government is even if that is looked upon as sad by some.

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  4. Jay Buoy

    logged in via Facebook

    Perhaps instead of organising stupid games playing forts and pretending to shoot each other "Team Australia" could have the scientists and industrialists from the US,China and Australia getting together and trying to work out strategies to combat the effects of Climate Change..

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    1. Bruce Shaw

      Retired Hurt

      In reply to Jay Buoy

      Team Australia has no room for science in the country since sep 11.

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    1. Ken Dyer

      Knowledge Seeker

      In reply to Thomas Liszt

      Spot on Thomas.

      One wonders at the unseemly haste with which these agreements were signed up after seven years in the making.

      Methinks smoke and mirrors, and as was mentioned on ABC Landline, the Japanese are still negotiating with the USA.

      Therefore, Australia is a known quantity reduced to a Japanese bargaining chip to coerce a better deal from the Yanks.

      It reminds me of a story that went the rounds many years ago when the Japanese tiger was on the rise. The first question they would…

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    2. Thomas Liszt

      Systems analyst

      In reply to John Phillip

      Hi Grumpy,
      Read your fellow poster's comments carefully and you get an insight into some of the issues with so-called FTA's.

      Check out Ben Marshall's take on it for example in response to:

      https://theconversation.com/fta-gains-slight-now-but-the-real-insurance-may-lie-in-the-future-25449

      Yo Craig and Chris.

      Reading your overview of FTAs was interesting but didn't change my view that when the revolution comes, we should defer hanging the lawyers and politicians to ensure every last economist…

      Read more
  5. Jim KABLE

    teacher

    We have as yet no word on which sections of our sovereignty we have signed away to which country. No such thing as a free lunch - no such thing as a free trade agreement.

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  6. Patrick Maher

    Retired Doctor of Psychology and Academic

    Tony Abbott did all this by himself in six months by proxy while riding bicycles and shafting pensioners back in Australia and while letting the likes of Apple and Gina and Twiggy suck Australia's wealth out to off-shore money havens. He is a genius, a wizard - the new political and economic Harry Potter. Yeah! Right!
    Can't the fool see he is a pawn in the hands of genuine global political and economic geniuses? This has 'tactics' written all over it and they are NOT Andrew Robb's or Tony Abbott's tactics either.

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  7. Chris Harries

    logged in via Facebook

    A few weeks ago many people were rather puzzled that the national government appeared almost to be cajoling the local car industry to close shop, whereas one would think any such move would entail long negotiations and much argy bargy, in defence of workers and so forth.

    Then it came to me that a major sticking point in talks over free trade agreements has been access to Japan and South Korea's very competitive car sales businesses. Creating a trade off with cars enabled Australia's much more…

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  8. robert roeder
    robert roeder is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    The geopolitical world is in the transition stage of a major shift in global power. On one side there is the old colonial powers represented by Europe, add to them the two new players of the US and Japan. In the last sixty odd years they have dominated the world financial system and dictated the laws and rules to their advantage. Now we have the rise of Asia. Japan, South Korea and Australia firmly entrenched within the the old hegemony.
    The US and it's allies have created wars and conflict around…

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  9. R. Ambrose Raven

    none

    A success? By that standard "stopping the boats" has been a success.

    FTAs are not an "achievement", notwithstanding the total refusal of journalists and commentators to bring themselves to look at the extremely consistent worsening of trade performance arising from AUSFTA, our current main FTA (ANZCERTA favours us, we being the larger). For the extremely rare journalist willing to do more than rewrite Noalition press releases, the Parliamentary Library has done quite a nice summary. Pity…

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