Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott got the win he needed yesterday with the announcement of the free trade agreement with Japan that had been highly anticipated before his trip to Asia began. Nevertheless, he still has to visit China and South Korea, before his journey is over and already things are heating up in a way that makes it seem like he is out of the frying pan and into the fire. South Korea has already expressed its concern, over the close partnership Australia has with Japan, and China is worried as well The Aussie prime minister will have to be very careful from here on out. As the situation stands today, Tony Abbott may be progressing on his trip through Asia, but he is not out of the woods yet in this crucial test of diplomacy.
Abbott’s announcement of the free trade agreement with Japan was a good political win back home in Australia. He showed that he has the ability to seal an important deal with a close ally, but it was not without a new gaffe. In a statement made some time before, Abbott called Japan the “best friend in Asia” for Australia. As far as professionalism goes, it seemed a little strange to some that Abbott would feel the need to rank his international friends as if foreign diplomacy were a middle-school popularity contest, but that is what he has done and other actors in Asia have reacted.
In November, the South Korean ambassador in Canberra said that if Japan really was the “best friend,” then that position would make it very difficult for South Korea to interact with Australia on security issues. That message has been characterized as “explicit, emphatic, and repeated.” Concerns over security are not without their place, as Tony Abbott also reached a deal on a defense and equipment partnership with Japan, which could definitely increase existing concerns about security matters.
Despite that, the prime minister was able to secure a free trade agreement with South Korea today. Already criticism at home has begun, even before now. Penny Wong, a member of Parliament for the Labour Party, worried that Abbott might sacrifice the time needed to get a good deal in order to make politically expedient announcements. After making two free trade announcements in two days, that worry sounds even louder than before. There was no doubt that the prime minister needed a political victory after such a poor showing in the last few weeks, but these announcements are almost too much of an advantageous windfall to seem truly good.
On top of this, there are questions about how much free trade agreements even matter. According to the Productivity Commission, bi-lateral free trade agreements do not provide much beyond small benefits to the countries involved, which can be offset by the cost of actually negotiating the deal in the first place. With this in mind, many people may be inclined to see Tony Abbott’s two big wins on free trade deals less as major progress and more like minor moments being trumpeted as a political stunt.
The issue for the prime minister now, however, is how to negotiate the murky waters of international diplomacy as he continues his tour of Asia. Already, he has had to play some very clever verbal games in order to reassure all parties involved. On his new defense deal with Japan, he emphasized that it is not meant to threaten any one country, but is meant only to create more cooperation between the Japanese military and the Australian military. He has also not repeated his “best friend” comment as a strategy to not aggravate that sore spot with South Korea. His diplomacy seems to be working, especially after the announcement of the free trade agreement between Australia and South Korea.
For now, the Australian prime minister’s trip is looking like a success, despite its ongoing nature. There are still challenges that lie ahead and Abbott will have to meet them. So far, he has done well, even racked up a few victories. Still, there have been gaffes for Tony Abbott as well and, knowing his propensity to make ill-advised statements, he is far from out of the woods yet as he continues on his trip through Asia.
Opinion By Lydia Webb