Australian Election Special
Image Credit: ISAF Media

Australian Election Special

 
 

There have been mixed reports over the fate of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s plans for an Asia-Pacific Community, with a report earlier this month suggesting Prime Minister Julia Gillard had described the project as having failed, while Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said last weekend some progress had been made. How serious do you think the current administration is, and should be, about the plan?

My guess is that they’ll probably row back a bit from the high-profile stance that Rudd took because there’s going to be a lot of rethinking generally about the Rudd agenda and how it’s been received domestically and in the region. I think they’ll want to distinguish themselves from the Rudd approach and attach less priority to some of his high-profile foreign policy initiatives.

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In the case of the Asia Pacific Community specifically, they’ll probably be particularly cautious as I think it’s clear that it hasn’t been an overwhelming success in the region and hasn’t been well received. In fact, a lot of people in the region are fairly ambivalent about the basis of the proposal.

One of the paradoxes of the region at present is that it may actually have too many rather than too few initiatives of this sort, and so a kind of regional shakeout in which there are actually fewer institutions is not a bad idea.

Something like the APC, which could do some of the things Rudd was talking about such as bringing economic, security and political initiatives under one umbrella, is potentially a good idea and so there’s some merit to the overall argument. But the key problem has been that it’s Australia that has been pushing it. The way that Rudd went about it didn’t help either, and I don’t think there was enough consultation with the region–especially with ASEAN, which is notoriously sensitive about who promotes regional initiatives and who should be in the ‘driving seat’. I think Australian foreign policy makers just underestimated how sensitive much of the region might be about these kinds of issues and there was a miscalculation about Australia’s ability to push this kind of programme.

Early in his term, much was made about Rudd’s China focus, especially with his fluency in Mandarin. What did you make of his policy toward China, and do you expect any shift under the current government, assuming it stays in office?

I think part of the problem was that expectations were unrealistically high. Because Rudd was known for being Asia literate, there was a sense that here was a guy who really understood the region, who understood China, and who would be able to get on with Chinese policymakers and dazzle them with his personal abilities. There was something in that, of course, but the complexity of the relationship meant that it was never going to possible for one person to guarantee its success.

The other problem was that Rudd was possibly sensitive to accusations that he might be too accommodating to China, and that he should consequently take a more robust stance toward it over economic issues and human rights issues. I think in some ways, Gillard might find it easier to have a pragmatic relationship with China because there won’t be the same expectations–perhaps on either side. I wouldn’t image the relationship will change dramatically, it will just be conducted on a more pragmatic basis because the underlying reality is that both countries have got no choice other than to get on because they’re so important to each other.

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