Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, having called Japan his country's closest friend in Asia, will seek this week to overcome Chinese unease about his loyalties in a region beset by territorial tensions.
Abbott is visiting Japan, a strategic ally, and China, his country's biggest economic partner, in his first visit to North Asia since taking office almost seven months ago. The trip is aimed at giving momentum to free-trade deals with both nations, which together account for a third of Australia's annual trade.
With the US looking to its allies to counter a more assertive China and with Japan embroiled in a dispute with its neighbour over the East China Sea, the task for Abbott, 56, will be to balance long-standing diplomatic leanings against the need to safeguard economic ties with China. Japan, China and South Korea, which Abbott will also visit, buy more of Australia's iron ore, coal and other exports than the rest of its customers combined.
"China is the ascending power and Japan is the declining power and there's nothing that Abbott or his values can do to change that," said Geoff Raby, Australia's ambassador to China from 2007 to 2011. Abbott's willingness to criticise China means "he will be under a great deal of scrutiny about his messaging and whether he can get the balance right".
Abbott and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, met on Sunday and talked about co-operation in security, including joint development of defence equipment, after Japan last week loosened a self-imposed ban on weapons exports to boost Tokyo's global role in a move which unnerved Beijing. The Australian premier attended a national security council meeting in Tokyo yesterday, a first for a foreign leader.
In Abe, a fellow conservative, Abbott found an ally eager to strengthen diplomatic and defence ties. Abe, making a point of referring to Abbott by his first name, said he believed the summit would lead to a "new relationship" with Australia, a fellow ally of the US.
Abbott is seeking to build on international goodwill generated by his handling of the search for a missing Malaysian passenger plane off Australia's west coast, and his government's success so far in hosting this year's Group of 20 meetings.
The lead Australia has taken in the hunt for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which carried more than 150 Chinese nationals, risks being overshadowed by Abbott's "beginner mistakes" that have fostered tricky ties with China, according to Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
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A month after winning power, Abbott labelled Japan his "best friend in Asia". Previous governments avoided so overtly aligning with the country from a strategic perspective in the region. Abbott has said he plans to bolster defence co-operation with Japan as part of his visit this week.
"He's still going to be on probation," said White, author of The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power. "The challenge will be whether he can refrain from causing further offence and salve the wounds in Beijing," he said.
Australia hosted as many as 2,500 US marines in its northern port city of Darwin, Raby noted.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press