Kevin Rudd has come to power at a time when the balancing act Australia faces in maintaining good relationships with the major Asian powers has never been so fraught or complex. China last year eclipsed Japan as Australia’s biggest trading partner. Tokyo fears it’s being usurped by Beijing as Australia’s friend in Asia. And India, jostling for its new place as a global economic and strategic superpower, is looking for suitable recognition of this status from Canberra.
Long gone are the days when Australia simply had to affirm its alliance with the United States, and all its other key bilateral relationships would fall into place.
As the reports went, if ever there was a newly elected Prime Minister equipped to handle this new dynamic, it was Rudd, with his impeccable foreign policy credentials. Here was Australia’s first Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister, a former diplomat with an astute understanding of China, who had spent five years as opposition foreign affairs spokesman. Here was Rudd, with his catchy “three pillars” approach to foreign policy – the US alliance, membership of the United Nations, and close engagement with the Asia Pacific – who had little trouble convincing the electorate he would be a safe pair of hands when it came to guiding Australia in international affairs. So after the first 100 days of the Rudd government, is the new Prime Minister living up to the hype?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Rudd has moved quickly to put his personal stamp on Australia’s new foreign policy while not deviating markedly from the Howard government’s fundamentals: a strong relationship with the United States, close engagement with Asia, and support for an open trading system. Early efforts with the Americans ensured he made a smooth transition in relations with Washington, minimising the impact on the alliance of withdrawing Australian combat troops from Iraq. Rudd won international kudos for ratifying the Kyoto protocol, which he did at the first opportunity in December at the UN climate change conference in Bali, moving Australia towards a greener foreign policy and re-embracing the UN and multilateralism. Rudd has also signalled a determination to give more attention to Europe than Howard did, including Brussels in his first major world tour.
Rudd smoothed relations with the South Pacific which had become badly fractured during the closing years of the Howard government. Rudd was helped by a change of government in the Solomon Islands and his trip to Papua New Guinea and meeting with its Prime Minister, Sir Michael Somare, was a PR coup. But the South Pacific will not be won over by a few handshakes in the right places. Rudd’s biggest challenge in the South Pacific will be finding how to make their struggling economies viable. The document Rudd produced from his March trip to PNG, the Port Moresby Declaration, did little to differentiate himself from Howard on this question, largely because it had little concrete policy in it. Most notably, it contained no mention of labour mobility, which is the number one issue in terms of Australia’s future relations with the South Pacific. There are compelling reasons for following New Zealand’s lead and opening the labour market to workers from the South Pacific. Despite Labor supporting such a scheme in opposition, Rudd has kept quiet about this issue so far.
When a foreign policy crisis erupted just two and a half months into his prime ministership – the attempted assassination of East Timorese leaders – Rudd did not hesitate in proffering a swift and robust response. An extra 200 Australian soldiers and 70 Federal Police poured into Dili, and Rudd followed in person a few days later. It’s a reaction that showed Rudd could be decisive during an international emergency – yet it has attracted criticism for being intemperate.
Professor Alan Dupont, from Sydney University’s Centre for International Security Studies, thinks Rudd’s jumping on a plane to see Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was “probably a little bit of overkill”. Dupont said it would have sufficed had Rudd sent Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, instead.
Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, says Rudd “significantly mishandled” the situation, and that he remains “unpersuaded” of the rationale behind sending in additional troops. White thought that Rudd over-personalised Australia’s interests in East Timor: the justifications Rudd gave for sending in troops emphasised Gusmao’s request for them, rather than it being in Australia’s interests to act this way. Rudd’s “over-militarised” response was also very similar to Howard’s, says White, something Rudd criticised Howard for and said he would not do himself.