Australian move might threaten New Zealand relationship with China

There are far more worrying things that an Australian government can do to New Zealand's interests than sticking with the status quo on Kiwi expats, writes Robert Ayson.

In terms of direct trans- Tasman relations, New Zealanders may be a bit miffed about what has come so far from the new Tony Abbott era.

In terms of the broad philosophy behind Australia's foreign policy settings, we should feel slightly flattered.

But in terms of the Abbott government's sloppy handling of a delicate territorial dispute between China and Japan, we have reason to be rather worried. Australia's stand on this matter may cut across New Zealand's long-term interests.

The miffed part of our reaction is easy to account for. Like many New Zealand prime ministers before him, it was only sensible for John Key to jump on a plane as soon as he could to meet his new Australian counterpart. There is little doubt that Mr Key and Mr Abbott will enjoy a steady relationship.

But while Mr Key pressed Mr Abbott on improving the lot for hundreds of thousands of Kiwi expatriates living in the west island, he came back empty handed. Mr Abbott's government realises that New Zealanders will continue to relish the chance to work in Australia, and is under no real obligation to open up all sorts of benefits to them.

Why New Zealanders might then feel flattered is a bit less obvious. But the Abbott team has in fact plagiarised large parts of the Key government's foreign policy.

This includes a very strong focus on using its foreign policy to boost Australia's commercial interests. It means an acceleration of the so-far stalled attempts to replicate New Zealand's Free Trade Agreement with China. It means a separate Minister for Foreign Affairs (Julie Bishop) and a separate Trade Minister (Andrew Robb).

And it also means the reintegration of the Australian aid agency (Ausaid) with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Whether or not we think all of these approaches have worked for New Zealand is not really the point. For a moment at least, we can call ourselves the pacemakers in Australasian foreign policy.

Some specific aspects of the Abbott foreign policy should work for New Zealand. Like Mr Key, Mr Abbott was coy on making a commitment either way on Syria, and grateful for the surprising deal that meant a foreign policy win for Russia and a back-down for the United States.

Instead of upping the ante on his "turn back the boats" pledge, Mr Abbott has chosen a more pragmatic and even sensitive line in his relations with Indonesia. Ms Bishop has already included New Zealand, among other close neighbours, in her travelling itinerary. We should expect, and hope for, some good early conversations about common interests in the South Pacific.

But there is one clanging bell that we should be wary of. Rather foolishly, the new Australian Government has sided very strongly with Japan in the East China Sea territorial dispute with China. This mis-step came on the fringes of the recent Apec meeting in Bali.

US President Barack Obama was not there of course. But Secretary of State John Kerry was in full flight, and along with Ms Bishop and Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, a meeting of the Japan-Australia-US trilateral strategic dialogue was held.

The statement that came out of that meeting, which Australia ought never to have endorsed, included some very obvious criticism of China's approach to the disputed Diaoyu (in Chinese) or Senkaku (in Japanese) islands.

These have been the focus for a great deal of the recent tension between East Asia's two largest powers.

Japan denies it even has a dispute, while China continues to push the envelope. In response to this unwise piece of diplomatic communication, the statement from China's foreign ministry was unsurprisingly critical.

It won't always be possible to avoid annoying China. But the East China Sea is not a subject on which Australia can afford to be so strongly aligned.

Crucially, Beijing said it understood that the US, Japan and Australia were allies. In a strict sense that is not true. Australia and Japan have formal alliances with the US but are strong security partners without formal alliance obligations with each other.

China clearly sees their relationship as otherwise. Japan set a trap for its emerging security partner and the new Australian government walked right into it.

The point is not that a strong Japan is anathema to regional stability. New Zealand and Australia have a shared interest in a Japan that can find for itself a new confident personality in regional affairs.

A Japan that is occasionally able to flex its not inconsiderable military muscles is on the whole good for the regional balance of power, especially with signs that China's position continues to strengthen while America's image is faltering.

But what Australia can't afford to do is to get itself squarely on one side of an impossibly vexed dispute between Japan and China. That's unnecessary, silly, and dangerous.

And given that Australia is New Zealand's No 1 ally, that's not good news for Wellington either.

There are far more worrying things that an Australian government can do to New Zealand's interests than sticking with the status quo on Kiwi expats. Australia can, with unthinking diplomacy, cut across New Zealand's interests in maintaining good and flexible relations with all the major powers, including with China.

Another step like the one seen at Bali and it will be wise for New Zealand to ensure that its Asian security policy settings are seen in the region as being quite distinct from Australia's.

Robert Ayson is Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, on research leave from Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies.