Abbott set to adopt 'Asia-first' approach

SYDNEY - Although he was born in London and remains a social conservative and staunch monarchist who frequently praises Western values, Australia's incoming prime minister has increasingly turned his attention eastward.

Mr Tony Abbott's government is set to adopt an "Asia-first" approach to foreign affairs and pursue closer ties and consultation across the region, particularly with Indonesia and China.

The new foreign minister, Ms Julie Bishop, has been a steadfast critic of Labor's failure to consult regional leaders, particularly in the case of former prime minister Kevin Rudd's sudden effort to try to set up an Asia-Pacific community.

Ms Bishop said on Sunday she would pursue a "much wider relationship with China and a much deeper relationship with China". "We will be more consultative," she told Sky News.

"Our government will be one of no surprises… Leaders throughout the region were taken by surprise on a number of occasions, to our country's detriment, by the previous government."

As a policy pragmatist, Mr Abbott said he wants to ensure Australia's diplomats are guided by economic - as well as political - interests. But he is likely to take a more cautious approach to foreign investment.

In a move that is likely to upset Beijing, he has expressed concerns about purchases of Australian businesses and farmland by state-owned Chinese companies.

Some clues to the incoming Abbott government's thinking were contained in the Liberal-National coalition's foreign policy plan released last week, which said its focus will be on "consistency, stability and mutual respect".

The plan lists its top five relationship priorities as the United States, Japan, Indonesia, China and India.

It indicates a commitment to existing regional groups such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation rather than trying to build new ones, as Mr Rudd sought to do.

A look at Tony Abbott's role in Australian politics

"Australia's neighbourhood will be defined as the Asia Pacific-Indian Ocean region," the plan said.

"The coalition will work cooperatively within our neighbourhood to make existing institutions work… rather than creating new ones."

Mr Abbott has hit back at Labor's criticisms that his main focus will be merely the pursuit of cosy relations with a narrow group of English-speaking Western nations he calls the "Anglosphere".

Instead, he pledged that his first overseas visits will be to Indonesia, China, Japan and South Korea rather than to traditional allies such as the United States and Britain.

"There's a sense in which we kind of know what the decisions in Washington or London will be," Mr Abbott said in an interview for a forthcoming Lowy Institute paper. "We can be less certain about decisions that might be made in Jakarta and Beijing."

Nonetheless, Mr Abbott was a strong supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He endorsed the move to station US troops in northern Australia and firmly backed a continued commitment to his country's deepest alliance, with the United States.

Ms Bishop, in turn, has signalled that her first visit will be to New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and possibly Singapore.

A Singapore visit would focus on promoting regional trade and a proposal to set up scholarships for students going to and coming from Asia.

But some analysts said the coalition lacks a coherent vision for Australia's role in the world and focuses on "the small stuff" rather than the big picture.

"Don't voters deserve some discussion about the ways in which their world is changing and how old certainties (such as America's predominance in the region or South-east Asian states as economic and strategic weaklings) are being eroded?" said Mr Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute, on its Interpreter blog.

Mr Abbott is unlikely to curb the influx of skilled workers and rejected Labor's plan to crack down on visas for temporary foreign workers, saying Mr Rudd had "demonised" the people who helped to build Australia.

"They aren't stealing our jobs, they are building our country," he said last month.

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