Media reports predict that Australia and Japan will sign a historic defence and security pact when Prime Minister Tony Abbott visits Japan this weekend. If this news is accurate, one must hope that Australia has prepared a major security-related deliverable for Abbott to propose to President Xi Jinping when he visits China some days later.
As I have argued in an Asan Forum piece, the most consequential foreign policy challenge the Abbott Government faces is how Australia manages its relations with China and Japan.
Not taking sides between China and Japan is pivotal for Australia if it wants to effectively protect and pursue its interests. Obviously, delicate balancing and innovative maneuvering are essential to ensure beneficial relations with both Beijing and Tokyo. Thus, a security pact with Japan requires something of substance in the security realm with China. What could that be?
In a Lowy Institute Analysis outlining key international priorities for the new Abbott Government last September, I suggested Canberra should establish a major regional training centre for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) in Darwin and invite China to be an active participant. A state-of-the-art HADR centre would both raise Australia's profile as a regional player and encourage China to increase its defence cooperation with the region.
As Rory Medcalf argues on The Interpreter today, as a result of Australia's coordination of the international search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, Abbott has 'an exceptional opportunity to underscore Australia's determination to work with the major Asian powers against common challenges'.
Abbott's Beijing visit would be the ideal moment for the Prime Minister to announce Australia's intention to host a regional HADR centre, emphasising China's important role in it – or better yet, as a partner in the initiative.