TONY Abbott's dual visits to Asia pose dramatic tests for his ambitions - his China policy now hinges completely on defeating the populist right wing at home and his strategic policy foundation lives amid growing doubts over US power.
In his opening month, Abbott has sent a series of signals with vast and unpredictable policy consequences that will engage his authority and skill as Prime Minister.
Consider the list. Abbott invests Indonesia with a Keatingsque supreme priority; he wants rapid practical gains with China by finalising the long delayed free trade agreement; his Asian vision is deeply pluralistic, not just China-bound, with priority within Southeast Asia on India, Indonesia and above all, Japan, whom he designates as Australia's "best friend in Asia" and sees playing a "more important" regional role; he is an enthusiastic backer of regional free trade forums; and, finally and sadly, he missed his bilateral with US President Barack Obama (having called the US "family" last year) because the American political system did not permit its chief to leave the country.
For Abbott, the immediate test is China. He cannot take refuge in the Malcolm Fraser technique - being a free trader abroad and protectionist at home. Abbott is right to impose a 12-month deadline to finalise the China FTA after 19 rounds of talks.
But this can be achieved only by Australian flexibility on Chinese investment into this country, including agricultural land. The Nationals will fight this.
They rattle their sabres and imply restrictions are non-negotiable. Abbott's danger is a populist revolt involving the Nationals, the Greens, talkback shock jocks and the rural grassroots all preaching a mercantalist dogma. The sooner this battle comes the better.
Without an FTA, Australia is being discriminated against in China's market and an enlightened Nationals' response should be acceptance of the "Asian century" trade-off: we take more Chinese investment in return for greater access and boosting exports into China. That's the deal Abbott must sell to a turbulent and unpredictable populist right wing.
Meanwhile, the omens about US medium-term policy cannot be ignored. Former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and influential player in Obama's "pivot" to the region Kurt Campbell says the President's cancellation of his Asian trip "was a blow to the administration's much-vaunted 'pivot' or re-balance to Asia" and warns "the damage is done - and there is no use in pretending otherwise".
The same view comes from Asia and trade expert Peter Drysdale from the ANU: "Make no mistake, President Obama's cancellation of his Asian trip to APEC in Indonesia and the East Asia summit in Brunei is a serious blow to American standing and its interests in the region and globally."
Drysdale makes the irrefutable point that if a functioning US government is unavailable then America's friends and foes alike "must naturally question the credibility of its commitments around the world".
Among the major players, only the US President failed to arrive for last week's two Asian summits. Abbott's strategic policy in Asia (like Labor's) is based on the "pivot" being an enduring reality. That Australian belief must now be put under serious scrutiny.
It is qualified by three factors: the current US domestic deadlock is not an aberration but reflects a polarisation sure to last many years; US fiscal policy faces a long-run squeeze that will limit the practical scope of the "pivot" to Asia; and the message of the past 12 months is permanent US strategic preoccupation in the trouble-plagued region from Morocco to Pakistan, whether the US likes this or not.
In short, the US shift to Asia faces institutional obstacles that demand fresh assessment. They put a crack in the foundation of Abbott's Asia policy. They accentuate the crisis in our defence budget. Drysdale says between 2000 and 2012 the US share in East Asian trade fell from 19.5 per cent to 9.5 per cent while China's grew from 10.2 per cent to 20 per cent. The bottom line is: how believable are US pledges in Asia?
For strategic analysts, the nightmare fascination now becomes Abbott's plan for Japan. He is driven to Japan by conservative orthodoxy cast in the footsteps of John McEwen and John Howard. But northeast Asia, riddled with China-Japan tensions, is far different from the world Howard left in 2007.
Abbott believes in the normalisation of Japan as a power, a big idea. He believes in Japan's maturity and democracy. He has little interest in Labor's pathetic fights with Japan over whaling.
This week Abbott in his first meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, extended an invitation for him to visit Australia and address the parliament. The symbolism is deliberate; it sends a big strategic message.
Japan expert Rikki Kersten from the ANU warns that with China-Japan tensions escalating, Abe's strategy is to "test the viability of the US security guarantee to Japan" with implications for the entire alliance system.
"Australia cannot look at its relations with Japan in isolation," she tells Inquirer. "Japan under Abe wants to co-opt the US and I think this is an entrapment agenda on Japan's part. Given the tensions between Japan and China I believe the Abbott government needs to be very careful about being caught in this Japanese entrapment strategy with risks for our relations with other nations such as China and South Korea."
Years ago Keating recounted a story from his time in office: "Sitting down to a private dinner one night in Tokyo as a guest of my Treasury counterpart, the Japanese minister of finance, Kiichi Miyazawa, in a moment of candour, asked me whether I thought the Chinese would attack Japan. Taken aback by the question and one put so seriously, I immediately replied: 'No, I do not.' To which Mr Miyazawa then said quizzically, 'But why not?'
"Both questions sent a political shiver through me. It was the antipathies within this (Japan-China) relationship that led me to conclude that something radical had to be done about the political architecture of north Asia."
The upshot was Keating's promotion of the APEC Heads of Government meeting. That meeting still exists but is now supplanted by the East Asia Summit as the premier regional summit.
Both meetings were held this week with Obama sending Secretary of State John Kerry in his place, causing regional leaders to cogitate about the US commitment to Asia.
There are two takeouts from these events. First, Abbott's policy must give greater saliency to intra-Asian relations in an update of the appreciation that alarmed and drove Keating's diplomacy.
Abbott seems to be moving in this direction. With a pluralistic view of Asia, he is investing from the start a far greater priority with Indonesia, Japan and India than anything that came from the same period under Kevin Rudd.
Second, contrary to much hysterical Australian commentary at the time, the problem with the Obama "pivot" to Asia is not its strength but its weakness. The problem is not the potential offence it might cause but the risk it might not materialise in a meaningful way. A host of Asian nations see a strong US presence as essential to balance the rise of China.