By Richard Teare
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott and New Zealand prime minister John Key in June visited Washington for meetings with President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials. Both leaders addressed breakfast audiences at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; however, their public remarks, a week apart, emphasized different themes.
Abbott, in his first year in office, has been beset by an unpopular first budget, a sharp decline in approval ratings, and even ridicule on U.S. television by comedian John Oliver. In Washington, Abbott dwelled on Australia’s good relations with both China and Japan, as well as with the rest of Asia. He praised the United States for its record of world leadership and said the United States should “not begrudge” China’s success but, rather, appreciate its achievement in raising hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. China’s rise has been good for the world “so far,” he said. Abbott did not mention human-rights violations in China, a topic on which he is deemed more lenient than even the Obama administration.
Abbott put greatest stress on the importance of the Australia-U.S. alliance, saying the United States might have allies “more important or more useful” than Australia, but never a more dependable ally. President Obama, in their post-meeting press availability, called Australians “good fighters” whom he’d like to have “in a foxhole.”
Abbott did not mention his significant foreign-policy achievement – effectively cutting off the flow of “boat people” arriving on Australia’s shores from South Asia and the Middle East, via Indonesia – and said nothing about his government’s domestic record. He avoided topics such as climate change, on which he might differ with the Obama administration: on July 17 Abbott achieved a major domestic priority, the repeal of Australia’s two-year-old carbon emissions tax.
John Key, by contrast, is in his sixth year in office and heading into a general election on September 20. He devoted about half of his U.S. Chamber speech to his government’s economic record, in what could be a preview of his campaign speeches. Key’s National Party is expected to win a third consecutive plurality and thus likely to lead another coalition government.
Key noted New Zealand’s economic growth in seven of the last eight quarters and its anticipated return to fiscal surplus in 2014-2015. Exports have diversified and increased, he said; thanks to a bilateral 2008 free trade agreement, China has supplanted the United States as New Zealand’s second-largest trading partner, after Australia. Key also cited New Zealand’s commitment to science and innovation, exemplified, he said, by Peter Jackson’s film-making. Kiwi voters can expect to hear these points often during the upcoming campaign.
Key did not neglect bilateral relations. He thanked the United States for its contributions of personnel and money in the wake of the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake; celebrated the improved New Zealand-U.S. defense and security relationship; and recalled New Zealand’s contributions of Special Forces and a provincial reconstruction team to Afghanistan.
Predictably, Key was criticized by some New Zealand media elements for allegedly cozying up to the United States and even for trying to pave the way for renewed port calls by U.S. warships, a political impossibility.
On balance, Key came across as the more self-confident of the two and the more relaxed at the microphone. At the White House, however, both Prime Ministers suffered the common fate of visiting heads of government: they mostly sat and listened politely while Obama dealt with media questions about Iraq.
The importance to both countries of their trade with China is well understood in Washington. Indeed, the possibility of having to take sides between the United States and China — over Taiwan, in the most obvious hypothetical case — has haunted Australian leaders for decades. For its part, Washington would like Australia and New Zealand to help convince China to become “a responsible stakeholder” in the world community; that would include both countries’ joining the United States, Japan and several ASEAN nations in pushing back against aggressive Chinese actions in the South and East China Seas. Australia and New Zealand could also heighten their attention to the vulnerable island nations of the South Pacific, where China has enhanced its presence and influence in recent years. Abbott’s strong reaction to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 — in which 27 Australians died — shows a degree of steel that the United States would welcome in the Asia-Pacific region.