SYDNEY (Reuters) - Conservative Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is pursuing an increasingly muscular foreign policy that has moved him closer to the United States on crises like Iraq and Ukraine, but has some worried over the risk of alienating China.
Abbott has sanctioned Russia over its support for insurgents in Ukraine, promised to train on Australian soil the Ukrainian government troops they are battling and armed Kurdish militias in Iraq in their fight against Islamist radicals.
But while the tough pose appears to resonate with the electorate, John Blaxland, a fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Center, says it is oddly out of step with Australia’s recent trajectory.
“I think you’d have to go back to about 1956 to find a parallel sort of unilateral, muscular intervention in a Middle Eastern issue that has placed Australia so prominently,” he said, referring to a doomed Israeli, British and French attempt to seize the Suez Canal.
Abbott’s coalition government tanked in the polls after handing down an unpopular budget in May, but his tough stance over the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in eastern Ukraine in July delivered a sharp popularity boost.
He has since pursued a strident foreign policy agenda, lashing out at Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he will host at a G20 summit in November, over what he has called Russia’s “bullying” of neighboring Ukraine.
On Thursday, before leaving on a visit to India, Abbott told reporters that in Iraq, Australia was “simply doing what we can as a good international citizen to try to keep people safe”.
But Senator Christine Milne, the leader of the opposition Greens Party, worries that he is headed towards multiple open-ended military commitments, partly for political gain and partly as a reflex.
“Certainly it has been the history of politics both here and in the United States that the conservative side of politics do well when there are national security crises,” she told Reuters.
“We have had, always, a predisposition in Australia to follow the United States,” she said. “And now we have Tony Abbott out on the world stage again, following the United States.”
During last year’s election campaign, Abbott promised “more Jakarta, less Geneva”, meaning that Australia, which fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, would mirror U.S. President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia.
But he seemed to struggle in his first year in a region increasingly seen as dominated by Chinese interests.
He angered Beijing by calling Japan Australia’s “best friend”, pushed for a deal to buy stealth submarines from Tokyo and stepped up support for aspects of Obama’s pivot that were deeply unpopular with China.
Never mind that China opposes military intervention of the kind being considered in Iraq and Syria, Blaxland says, more important is that intervention in the Middle East distracts Australia at precisely the moment China is coming to dominate its own backyard.
“Focusing on the Middle East sucks almost all of the policy oxygen out of our engagement in the Indo-Pacific, in the security affairs closer to home,” he said.
But former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill warned during a recent visit to Australia against viewing U.S. and Chinese interests as a zero sum game.
“I think it’s a bit of an unintended consequence for Americans to talk about a pivot to Asia ... in terms of confronting China, because that is not the right attitude,” he told Reuters.
“After all, for many Americans our engagement in the world is not so much an engagement as it is a confrontation. Certainly that’s the case in the Middle East.”
Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Nick Macfie