PM, Abott on a steep foreign learning curve

Gillard is a quick study in foreign affairs, but Abbott has a way to go.

JULIA Gillard and Tony Abbott both used the commemoration trip to Bali as a staging post for foreign visits in the past few days - the PM has been to Afghanistan and India and the Opposition Leader went on to Jakarta.

Gillard was always going to have the easier task of it. Leaving aside Afghanistan, fundamentally a meet-and-greet for the troops, India has reason to welcome Gillard. She has delivered for it.

In recent years Labor's ban on uranium exports to India had become an irritant in the relationship. Gillard was not the only Labor figure in driving its overturn by the ALP national conference late last year, but it was her imprimatur that counted. The change was made on her watch and, while exports are some time away, her visit to Delhi this week cleared the ground for the next stage - the negotiation of safeguards - to begin.

The Jakarta visit by Abbott and his shadow minsisters, on the other hand, involved something the Indonesians do not want to hear: that a Coalition government would press them to do more of the heavy lifting in deterring asylum seekers from setting out for Australia - including accepting a tow-back policy.

Gillard, who returned home yesterday, went to India ahead of releasing the government's white paper on ''Australia in the Asian Century''. That will be about how in coming years we can benefit, especially economically, from a closer relationship in a dynamic region that will have a rapidly growing huge middle class. (Provided we get our skill set right.)

India is a case in point. Trade has grown from about $3 billion in 2000 to $20 billion: the goal is for it to double to $40 billion by 2015. But at the moment the trade is narrowly based. For example, we sell substantial education services, but there is great potential to export many other services.

In her comments in Delhi, Gillard repeatedly stressed that, thanks to the economic reforms that the two countries have undertaken (India's are more patchy than Australia's), their interests have converged.

While Australia's preoccupation is paramount in widening economic opportunities, the Prime Minister was also talking up the prospect of closer defence ties, including joint naval exercises. In a region where the long-term security outlook is necessarily somewhat uncertain given China's growing power, Australia looks to both developing the best possible relationship with the region's giant but also cultivating other strategic partnerships.

Inevitably, uranium was always going to be the headline interest of the visit, because the earlier ban had taken such broad symbolism. After an Indian-Australian business forum on Tuesday, Lindsay Fox and the ANZ's Mike Smith, two of the business delegation accompanying Gillard, said the end of the ban had removed an obstacle and so facilitated business relationships.

The uranium ban is not the only issue that made for some tension with India in recent years. The other was violence against Indian students which led to much negative publicity in India. Gillard was also a key player in dealing with this problem, visiting India as deputy PM and education minister at the height of the furore in 2009, as the government put measures in place to regulate shonky education providers.

In his remarks after meeting Gillard, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he had conveyed appreciation on both the uranium and education issues.

In the early stages of her prime ministership, Gillard famously admitted she would be more at home in a classroom than on the international stage. Now she is at ease on the foreign circuit, comporting herself competently. The ground is well prepared for her; she has a friendly style that engages other leaders. As Barack Obama has said, she is a quick study. She has learnt a lot in a short time.

Abbott is further back in the learning process, although he started with more natural interest and knowledge in the area. From what we have seen he is anything but a natural diplomat. Yesterday he displayed ignorance about how lobbying for Security Council seats is played out when he said: "Let's face it, the competition is Finland and Luxembourg and if Australia can't come first or second in a three-horse race involving Finland and Luxembourg there's something wrong with us."

If Obama is re-elected next month and the Coalition wins next year, it will be fascinating to see how the Obama-Abbott relationship develops. Bill Clinton and John Howard had little time for each other, and it showed. Would Abbott try harder with a Democrat president, or would it be a repeat of the early Howard years? Would Abbott seek to play an innovative role as did Kevin Rudd in the G20, or be happy to just have Australia along for the ride?

The relationship with Indonesia would be a crucial test for Abbott. Currently he is talking to the domestic audience rather than worrying too much about the Indonesians - his visit notwithstanding.

But government compromises have to be made for the sake of wider diplomatic interests. Just as senior ALP figures came to accept that denying uranium to India was not sustainable, so a Coalition government would come under strong pressure to take more account of Indonesian feelings when it came to the tow-backs.

Michelle Grattan is political editor.

Julia Gillard

Julia Gillard