There is a lot riding on Tony Abbott’s first official trip to north Asia, and while much hinges on the outcome of trade negotiations, that’s far from all the prime minister will be judged on.
His week-long trade mission to Japan, South Korea and China starting this weekend will require deft diplomacy, for a slip up in this sensitive and increasingly tense region could distract from the task at hand.
Mr Abbott wants to liberalise trade with these economic powerhouses, not surprising given the two-way flow of goods and services to these three markets is worth a whopping $250 billion a year.
The main challenge is striking a balance between China and Japan. They are Australia’s top two trading partners, but experts warn relations between them haven’t been frostier since World War II.
Mr Abbott must tread carefully. If he wants to navigate the region without incident next week, he should eschew past references to Japan as Australia’s “best friend” and “strong ally”.
He can’t risk affronting China – and South Korea, who also aren’t on speaking terms with Japan – on this trip.
But the prime minister has gone to great lengths in the lead up not to play favourites, stressing that Australia’s relationships with its Asian partners are not mutually exclusive.
“My message is that making new friends doesn’t mean losing old ones,” he told an Asia Society forum in Canberra recently.
The stakes are high for the prime minister in part because he ambitiously promised to end years of stalemate by securing free trade agreements with Japan and China within 12 months of being elected.
He will symbolically start his trip in Tokyo, where he hopes to finalise seven years of negotiations and announce a broad, liberal trade agreement alongside his counterpart Shinzo Abe.
To seal the deal with Australia’s second-largest trading partner would be a major coup for Mr Abbott early in his first foray into the region, as long as it’s well received back home.
But that outcome is far from assured, with trade officials saying both sides have been pushing hard in last-minute negotiations in Japan all week.
Australia’s victory over Japan in the UN’s top court over its whaling program threatens to be a distraction, but Mr Abbott insists the bilateral relationship is “much bigger” than this sore point.
The hard work is already done with South Korea, with Mr Abbott dropping briefly into Seoul to ink the bilateral trade deal clinched with our fourth-largest trading partner in December.
Things are far less certain with China, Australia’s largest trading partner by a country mile.
It’s the final stop on Mr Abbott’s “trifecta of trade” tour, but it’s being given the lion’s share of the prime minister’s time.
His goal to achieve “substantial progress” on a free trade deal may seem modest compared to Japan, but the government is throwing everything it’s got into the final few whirlwind days to woo Beijing.
A delegation of more than 400 companies will attend the inaugural Australia Week in China trade expo, along with most state premiers, chief ministers and high-profile chief executives and senior business figures.
Australia wants to show it takes China seriously. But things are always sensitive with Beijing, despite a two-way trade ledger worth $130 billion last year.
Last time the government ventured into Beijing, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was publicly upbraided for condemning China’s declaration of an air-defence zone over remote islands also claimed by Japan.
It wasn’t a good look for a new government taking its first steps into China. Australia’s top diplomat for North Asia later described the rebuke as the rudest display he’d seen in 30 years.
The government brushed it off as friends exchanging ideas, but really it showed China wouldn’t tolerate any sense that Australia was taking sides in an increasingly hostile dispute with Japan.
Mr Abbott’s support of Prime Minister Abe’s controversial plans to rebuild Japan’s military – an act prohibited by its constitution – could curry favour in Tokyo, but will win him no friends in Beijing.
With the focus on trade, it’s unclear if the prime minister will raise thornier diplomatic issues, like human rights, with China.
Mr Abbott declined to raise the issue when in Sri Lanka late last year, saying he was “not inclined to go overseas and give other countries lectures”.
He can hardly ignore the spectre of North Korea looming over the region, even if he said recently Australia isn’t “any kind of leader” on the stand-off with Pyongyang.
One crisis that could work in his favour is the ongoing search for missing Malaysia Airways flight MH370, a multi-nation operation spearheaded by Australia.
Mr Abbott has made diplomatic headway ahead of his trip, briefing Chinese president Xi Jinping about the search and posing with South Korean, Japanese and Chinese military crew to stress the joint nature of the effort.
It might help break the ice in Beijing should any awkwardness arise.