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Courageous first moves

14 Apr 2008

KEVIN RUDD’s global diplomatic odyssey might just have cleared the way for more genuinely independent, confident and assertive Australian dealings with the world. In a clear break from the previous government’s cautious, sometimes cringing, attitude towards major powers, Rudd has emerged as a forthright middle-power leader with a clearly articulated sense of national interest and international obligation.

The Prime Minister’s visits to the United States, Europe and especially China appear to have achieved a paradigm shift which will see Australia speaking and acting on senstive issues with previously rare public frankness and independence.

Rudd’s new diplomatic paradgim embraces an assertive realism in defence of national political and economic interests and a persistent activism on human rights, climate change and other transnational issues. It is now possible to be optimistic that Australia will be a fully engaged player with multilateral bodies like the United Nations, the European Union and the East Asian Summit.

For Rudd this was a major achievement and marked his emergence as a figure of substance on the world stage during his seventeen-day trip. He showed that Australian relations with the world could no longer be crudely characterised as “row or kow tow,” but could be civil, direct and productive and without any suggestion of defensiveness or grovelling.

The subscript beneath Rudd’s approach was his unstated insistence that Australia’s relations with the world should be essentially symmetrical: Australia matters as much to those with whom it deals as they do to Australia. Great and powerful friends are entitled to a forthright expression of Australian views, and do not have to be treated tentatively, for fear of giving offence.

So Rudd was able to tell George Bush Australia was withdrawing combat troops from the Iraq without incurring Washington’s wrath. He told the British that the republic was still on the agenda, and that he was a republican, without any visible reaction from the Palace. But Rudd’s most impressive achievements were in China where he offered the communist leaders friendship which “offers unflinching advice and counsels restraint.”

Abandoning the kid gloves treatment that characterised the previous government’s dealings with China, Rudd stood by his clear view that there were significant human rights problems in Tibet which needed to be settled through dialogue rather than Chinese military violence. Confronted by Chinese protests, Rudd serenely declared to Chinese leaders that it was important he should be able to express differing viewpoints in a broad-based relationship.

At the same time he gained agreements with China to revive stalled free trade agreement talks and to engage at ministerial level on climate change issues, and he moved to secure Australian access to China’s financial services market. The Chinese leadership treated him with obvious respect.

These achievements came against the potentially disruptive backdrop of world protests against China’s international olympic torch relay, Chinese anger over rising Australian coal prices, and revived rumors of a Chinese push to gain to acquire a multi-billion dollar stake in BHP Billiton.

Rudd gave the Chinese no reason to hope that the Australian government would intervene on stop protests against the Olympic torch when it arrived in Australia. He said Australia would provide security for the torch relay in Australia but would not permit Chinese security forces disguised as “flame attendants” to act as guards. In the circumsntances this was a bold call.

He would not intervene on coal prices or assist (or block) a Chinese move on BHP Billiton. Prices rose and fell on commodity markets, he said, adding that his role was to defend the Australian national interest and that the government was advised by the Foreign Investment Review Board. The Chinese of course understood this, but would doubtless have preferred a more accommodating approach.

Rudd’s forthrightness was clearly based on his confident understanding of the Chinese character, based on his command of the Chinese language and and his extensive experience with China. While he recognised China’s importance to the Australian economy, he was also clear that Australia was just as important to China as a source of energy and minerals.

Rudd’s stance revealed his underlying belief that the Chinese respect and understand toughness and that they will throw their weight around if they detect weakness or vaccilation in a foreign partner.

His overarching achievement was to disarm the potential bully with civility, confident firmness, and friendship offered on the basis of mutual respect and honesty. Rudd balanced delicate economic and human rights imperatives without compromising Australia-China relations. He insisted that Australia would not support an Olympic Games boycott and that it recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet while criticising its human rights performance.

It was always likely that Rudd would be a foreign policy prime minister, and he still has much to achieve - especially in relation with important regional powers including Japan and Indonesia, as well as with messy south Pacific neighbors. But he has made an impressive start and has restored some political and moral courage to vital Australian relationships. 

Geoffrey Barker is a columnist with the Australian Financial Review and a frequent contributor to APO.


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