Australia's conservative leader Tony Abbott waves as he walks to the stage to claim victory in Australia's federal election.
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 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.

But to assume that Abbott will always side with the United States over China overlooks the other side of his political creed. Abbott prides himself on being a pragmatic politician who deals with issues on their merits. And the biggest reality for Australia today is that China’s rise offers incredible economic opportunities in the region. Abbott will soon find that Beijing does not allow Canberra to take these opportunities for granted. The Chinese are quite willing and able to threaten Australia’s economic prospects when they think that Canberra is adopting policies contrary to their interests. Despite his conservative instincts, Abbott’s pragmatic concern for Australia’s prosperity and his own political interests ensures that he will respond to this kind of pressure. And that means that his support for the United States in Asia will often be less forthcoming than Washington hopes and expects.

As Abbott walks this careful line between Washington and Beijing, he will, indeed, be following in Howard’s footsteps. Howard is commonly assumed to have repositioned Australia away from Asia and even closer to the United States. In reality, though, he went a long way to court Beijing, doing whatever it took to build the economic relationship that has served Australia so well, while still appearing to draw closer to Washington. Abbott no doubt hopes that he can do the same. But ties have changed since Howard left office in 2007. The strategic rivalry between the United States and China is much more overt now, and is only likely to intensify. Canberra now faces more pressure from both sides, which gives Abbott much less room for maneuvering and obfuscation than Howard had.

It will be tempting for Abbott to just cross his fingers and hope for the best, but that is not his only option. The statesmanlike thing would be to try to reduce the risk of escalating the U.S.-China rivalry by urging both sides to settle their differences and to agree to share power in Asia. This would be a very radical and unexpected thing for any Australian leader to do, and nobody looking at Abbott’s conservative record would imagine that he might be the one to do it. But of course that is Abbott’s trump card. In 1972, only someone with President Richard Nixon’s record could afford to visit Beijing. By the same token, Abbott might just be the one who could revolutionize Australia’s foreign policy to address the new realities of the Asian century. 

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  • 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.
  • More By Hugh White