The Financial Times

By Jamie Smyth

While in opposition Tony Abbott did not show much interest in international diplomacy. He opposed Australia’s bid to win a seat on the UN Security Council, derided Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for spending too much time overseas and eschewed global action to tackle climate change.

But since becoming prime minister in September last year Mr Abbott has undergone something of a conversion, notching up more air miles than his predecessor, whom he mischievously labelled “Kevin 747”, during the equivalent period and showing more ambition in foreign affairs than anyone thought likely.

This weekend Mr Abbott will host the G20 leaders’ summit in Brisbane, where he will try to cement his newfound role as a global statesman and reinvigorate an institution some say is becoming an irrelevant talkfest as the global financial crisis recedes.

“During the election campaign Mr Abbott talked about ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ but in office he has been a globalist rather than a regionalist,” says Michael Fullilove, director of the Lowy Institute think-tank.

In part, Mr Abbott’s shift towards pursuing an ambitious foreign agenda reflects difficulties at home, where his first budget has been bitterly opposed. It is also the result of unforeseen events, which have propelled Australia to the forefront of global affairs.

Mr Abbott and his sure-footed foreign minister, Julie Bishop, won international plaudits for taking a tough stand against Russia in the aftermath of the shooting down over eastern Ukraine in July of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, whose 298 casualties included 26 Australian citizens.

Overcoming his scepticism over the value of a UN Security Council seat, the Abbott government used its position in effect to sponsor a UN resolution to establish an independent investigation into the tragedy and put pressure on Moscow over its links to rebels.

Australia has dealt sensitively with the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared en route from Malaysia to China in March with 239 people on board, by committing significant resources to a lengthy and expensive search. It signed up early to join the coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, the jihadi group known as Isis, in a move welcomed by Washington.

“Abbot has shown a good personal touch in foreign relations, bridged ideological differences and importantly developed a good relationship with President Obama,” says Michael Wesley, professor of international politics at Australian National University.

However, as Mr Abbott said in a pre-summit video released this week, “this summit is about real results, not lofty words”.

For Australia, maintaining the G20 as the premier global leaders’ forum for economic issues is important. During its year-long presidency it has kept the agenda tightly focused on a relatively small number of economic issues, drawing praise from foreign diplomats.

Some concrete results are expected to emerge from the summit, including a deal on a target for structural reforms that aims to boost global growth by 2 per cent above the current trajectory over five years.

Boosting growth is central to Mr Abbott’s domestic as well as foreign agenda. Under his watch Australia has signed bilateral trade deals with Japan and South Korea. A deal with China – Australia’s biggest trading partner and a crucial engine of growth for its resource-fuelled economy – is likely to be agreed next week in Canberra during a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

For a politician with a reputation for verbal gaffes, Mr Abbott has made few obvious diplomatic mistakes aside from his recent threat to “shirt-front” Vladimir Putin at the G20 over the downing of MH17.

However, on climate change Australia under Abbott is drawing overseas criticism. His government’s lacklustre response to the threat could leave Australia dangerously isolated if a global deal to cut emissions is agreed next year in Paris.

Mr Abbott’s potentially biggest shift of emphasis has been towards establishing a much closer relationship with Japan, which he described last year as Australia’s “closest friend in Asia”.

Canberra has supported Japan’s push to end its military limitations, agreed to much closer co-operation on defence and is even considering buying its next generation of submarines from Tokyo.

Some commentators fear the policy shift could draw Australia into a clash with China.

“Japan has a very nationalist government, which has a tense relationship with China, our biggest trading partner,” says Brendon O’Connor, associate professor at the University of Sydney. “Australia should be wary of getting itself bound up in an alliance-style relationship with Japan.”

This article was originally published at The Financial Times