Will Abbott Choose China?
HUGH WHITE is a professor of strategic studies in the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University in Canberra. He was formerly a senior official in Australia’s Department of Defense. His book The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.See more by this author
Australian voters were not thinking much about foreign policy when they voted last weekend to dismiss the Labor government of Kevin Rudd and install a conservative government under Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition Liberal Party. Instead, the election hinged on sharp domestic debates and on personality questions. Both sides tacitly agreed to ignore the huge foreign policy question that looms over the country: How should Australia position itself between its traditional ally, the United States, and its major trading partner, China, as their strategic rivalry grows?
That question cannot be dodged for long, and it will now fall to Abbott to find an answer. Like most Australian politicians, Abbott has little experience in foreign affairs and apparently little interest in it. There is no evidence that he has thought much about what is happening in Asia or what it means for Australia. So it would be a big surprise if he came to office with any fully formed plans. What he brings instead is a rather typically Australian mix of conservatism and pragmatism, and the example of his model, mentor, and predecessor: the last Liberal prime minister, John Howard.
As a classic Australian conservative, Abbott puts great store in Australia’s traditional alliances -- not just with the United States but also with the United Kingdom, to which he retains a much deeper sentimental attachment than do most Australians today. He talks a lot about the “Anglosphere,” which seems to occupy a central place in his worldview. That means that his first instinct will always be to support the United States in whatever it is trying to do. In one of the few campaign remarks that he made about foreign policy on issues other than Syria, Abbott said that he would always be inclined to offer the United States whatever support it asked for.
Abbott’s conservatism also inclines him to be uneasy about modern China. Like many people in the West -- and not just conservatives -- he finds it uncomfortable that China could grow so quickly and become so powerful despite its authoritarian one-party political system. That challenges his deeply held ideas about the ascendency of democratic principles, which had seemed so decisively validated by the collapse of communism elsewhere in the world.