When Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott swept to power in September’s general election, his promise of a foreign policy that was “more Jakarta than Geneva” raised hopes of new era of engagement with powerful Asian neighbors.
Less than three months into the job, Abbott’s conservative government is embroiled in the worst diplomatic rift with Indonesia since the turn of the century and China, its biggest trade partner, is complaining bitterly about Australian comments regarding fresh tensions in the East China Sea.
The deterioration of relations between Australia and key regional powers has fueled fears that trade, investment and security will suffer and have helped ensure a swift end to any post-election honeymoon enjoyed by Abbott’s government.
“They’ve run headlong into the brutal reality that the distribution of power in Asia has shifted,” said Hugh White, professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies. “They are dealing with both an Indonesia and a China that are stronger than they understood.”
Tensions with China escalated after Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop described Beijing’s weekend move to impose a new airspace defense identification zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea as “unhelpful” and summoned China’s ambassador to explain.
That sparked a terse response from China’s foreign ministry, which rejected her remarks as “irresponsible” and “completely wrong.”
Bishop, who heads to Beijing next month, denied the spat would damage Abbott’s stated aim of concluding long-stalled talks over a free-trade agreement with China within the year.
“No, I don’t accept that,” Bishop told Sky News yesterday. “This is a matter of longstanding Australian policy. We’ve raised it before and the response from China was to be expected.”
Australia, which takes over chair of the G20 next month, relies on China and other Asian nations to buy the bulk of its exports, particularly minerals and agricultural products.
However, a strengthening of ties with both the US and Japan — which Abbott recently described as Australia’s best friend in Asia — has put Australia in a difficult position as the strategic rivalry between China and the US grows.
“I expect China to be a strong and valuable economic partner of ours because its in China’s interest to be a strong and valuable economic partner, but I think China fully understands that on some issues we are going to take a different position to them,” Abbott said yesterday.
The rising rhetoric with Beijing comes just days after relations between Australia and Indonesia slumped to their lowest point since 1999 following reports that Canberra had spied on top Indonesian officials, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife.
Indonesia responded by halting military and police cooperation until it received a personal explanation from Abbott.
Jakarta, a major importer of Australian wheat, live cattle and beef, has also been looking at alternatives for food imports, while a state-owned firm has suspended talks over the potential purchase of Australian cattle stations
“The fact is, we need Indonesia more than Indonesia needs us and the Indonesians are in the process of demonstrating that,” White said.