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Does Tony Abbott get China? Challenge for next Australian leader
Favourite to win Australian poll is likely to cosy up to US, though he claims to know Beijing matters
Pam Walker in Sydney
If the polls are right, conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott will be Australia's next prime minister.
Abbott goes into tomorrow's election with little-to-no foreign policy experience, and throughout the campaign he offered few clues to his approach - especially regarding Australia's crucial relationship with China.
But strategic experts are pinning their hopes on Abbott emulating his political mentor, former Liberal Party prime minister John Howard. On Howard's first visit to China as prime minister in 1997, looking out over the impressive and expanding Shanghai skyline from his hotel, he is said to have asked: "How long has this been going on?"
Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, said Howard "got it" and acted to take Australia closer to China in the new millennium.
"The talk may have been all about the US and its 'war on terror' but Howard moved strongly to make sure Australia was in a position to take up the economic opportunities that China presented," he said.
"He would allow nothing to get in the way of a closer relationship with China and this transcended even his determination to go all the way with [George W.] Bush."
In October 2003, Howard even invited then-President Hu Jintao to address a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament, the day after Bush addressed it, which White said was "a stark and deliberate gesture".
Like Howard, it was possible Abbott might "get it" too, White said, but that was unclear.
There have been some hints: on Wednesday, Abbott told the Sydney Morning Herald that his first travel priorities would be Indonesia, China, Japan and South Korea, rather than long-standing allies the United States and Britain. "In the end your focus has got to be on the relationships that need the most attention," he said.
"Decisions which impact on our national interests will be made in Jakarta, in Beijing, in Tokyo, in Seoul, as much as they will be made in Washington."
However, White said Abbott had still given little real indication of how he would act as prime minister. "On the evidence so far we can't assume he would do anything other than take us closer to the US, but it is possible he could surprise us," said White.
As opposition leader, Abbott's rhetoric was pro-US. Earlier this week he described the US as "Australia's greatest ally", and in his book Battlelines he wrote that Howard had run a "kind of neighbourhood watch scheme in support of Western values".
"It will take time and much further evolution for our friendship with China to approach the warmth that we take for granted with America. But it is worth the effort and it must be made," Abbott told business leaders in Beijing last year.
In that same speech to AustCham Beijing, the China-Australian Chamber of Commerce, Abbott said China needed to embrace political and legal reforms but indicated his objective in government would be engagement rather than containment, and co-operation rather than strategic competition.
"In the long term, China should prosper even more if its people enjoyed freedom under the law and the right to choose a government, despite the difficulty of managing this transition in a country with a tumultuous history," he said.
Abbott rejected suggestions Australia might some day need to choose between its alliance with the US and commercial relationship with China. "That's a choice we should never have to make. If we ever needed to, I suspect that the world would be in a dark place," he said.
In contrast, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's approach is that Australia should encourage China and the US to carve out a new Asia-Pacific "strategic road map".
Over the last year Rudd has been speaking about the need for Australia to encourage a power-sharing arrangement between the superpowers as the best policy for Australia and the Pacific region.
But Rudd, a Putonghua-speaking former diplomat with undeniably greater foreign affairs experience, carries baggage from his first term as prime minister, White said. "His expertise became a liability rather than an asset and he began to overcompensate to prove he was not [too close to China]."
White said the future of the US-China relationship was a risk to Australia's relationship with both of them, adding there was clear evidence of escalating strategic rivalry, to which Australia had contributed by agreeing to host a contingent of US marines in Darwin.
"China has strong views on how Australia positions itself between the US and China. There will be spillover for us: the more contested the US-China relationship becomes, the harder our position becomes," he said.
Australia needs to be active in arguing for an Australian view of how the US-China relationship should look, White said.
Both the Asian Century White Paper - a key foreign policy blueprint for Australia that was released last year - and the current Defence White Paper clearly acknowledge that China's growing power changes the relationship.
"We need to avoid doing things that affect either side to increase tensions and encourage Washington to share power. We are well placed to articulate this," said White.
Malcolm Fraser, Liberal prime minister from 1975 to 1983, wrote in The Age newspaper that Australia should assert its independence or risk being dragged into conflict with China.
Fraser described Australia as "the southern linchpin of America's policy of containment" and said he did not want "Australia to follow America into a fourth war" in the western Pacific that would have far-reaching implications for its relations with Japan, China and Indonesia.
This scenario was not inevitable if America was prepared to share power, Fraser said.
Frank Tudor, national chairman of the Australia China Business Council, said both the foreign policy and defence white papers were important to Australia's future success.
"Lots of work and intellectual horsepower was brought to bear on the [Asian Century] White Paper. In concept and delivery it was considerably well received across the region. We'll be looking to see how some of those issues will be taken forward after the election," Tudor said.
The ACBC also expects whoever wins government will continue free-trade discussions that began in 2005 but wants to see a concerted effort to push these through to a conclusion.
"The removal of relatively high trade barriers in a Chinese market that is far and away the largest destination for Australian exports provides Australia with greater gains than does removal of already low Australian barriers in a market that is the destination for a relatively small percentage of Chinese exports," Tudor said.
"A free-trade agreement which levels or betters the playing field in terms of market entry, price competition and product offering for Australian firms competing against domestic or other foreign service providers operating in China becomes only more important as the Chinese middle- income class grows along with the appetite for financial, insurance and health services."
Tudor said the scale of investment potentially on offer from China dwarfs traditional sources of capital such as Britain, the US and Japan.
He cited the announcement that the Shanghai Zhongfu Company was the preferred proponent to lease and develop 13,400 hectares in Australia's northwest, to establish a sugar industry in the region, as an example of how foreign direct investment could breathe life into regional cities and rural communities.
There is much to lose should the Sino-Australian relationship falter. Australia's trade with China is now worth over A$125 billion (HK$885 billion), making China its largest trading partner.
The Australian Financial Review reported recently that Australia had become more reliant on China as a buyer of its exports than on any other trading partner in the past 63 years.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse