Will Abbott Choose China?

Australia Out to Sea

Australia's conservative leader Tony Abbott waves as he walks to the stage to claim victory in Australia's federal election during an election night function in Sydney September 7, 2013. David Gray / Courtesy Reuters

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

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