Features | Politics | Oceania

Alas Smith & Rudd

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.

By Cynthia Banham for

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?

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.

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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.

But where Rudd comes in for most disapproval is over his government’s early handling of relations with the great Asian democracies, Japan and India, giving the impression, critics argue, that Australia placed greater value on its relationship with China. Here, it is not Rudd government policy which is necessarily the subject of criticism – the issue is the diplomacy used to implement it.

Foreign policy analysts say the Japanese were giving clear signs they were very sensitive to the new Australian Prime Minister’s personal emphasis on China, and what this meant for Canberra’s relationship with Tokyo. These insecurities were exacerbated when Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announced during a visit to Canberra by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in early February that Australia would not take part in a quadrilateral dialogue with the US, Japan and India. Smith tells me his comment on the quadrilateral dialogue was a straight answer to a question from an Australian journalist. “I turn up to a press conference with the Chinese Foreign Minister and I give an answer,” Smith says. “I’m old fashioned.”

But some critics argue this was unnecessary. The quadrilateral dialogue was already a dead issue. In opposition, Labor made it clear it would not support the dialogue because it would be perceived as hostile to China, nor did former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer think it was a smart idea. Moreover, it was an idea pushed by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Bush Administration, and India was never very interested.

Intense pressure placed by Canberra on Tokyo over its “scientific whaling” charade fed into these sensitivities, particularly as whaling dominated Smith’s visit to Tokyo in January. By the time Rudd announced his unusually lengthy 18-day world tour in which he would visit Washington, New York, Brussels, Bucharest (for a NATO summit on Afghanistan), London and Beijing – but not Japan – Australia’s closest ally after the US and Britain was feeling decidedly snubbed.

The question many are asking is why didn’t Rudd, with his radar finely tuned to north Asia, do something to manage Japan’s paranoia? White does not believe Rudd is anti-Japan, but says he has “misjudged the situation”. Strategic analyst from Keio University in Tokyo, Professor Ken Jimbo, says the Japanese fear a shift in Australia’s relationship with Japan because of Rudd’s “interest in increasing the profile of Australian-Chinese relations, both trade and political relations.”

Dupont believes the perception is developing that the Rudd government is “less friendly to Japan” and is more predisposed towards China, and says “we are in danger of missing those signals and the whaling issue is feeding into that.”

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Rudd’s defence in Parliament of his trip was that four of his ministers have already visited Japan, he has been invited by Tokyo to visit in July during the G8 Summit, and is planning a second bilateral visit on top of that. To quell the current press, Rudd has confirmed a visit to Tokyo in June.

Smith gives the same “straight shooting” defence in response to criticism of his public comments about government refusal to sell uranium to India during a visit to Australia by an Indian Prime Ministerial Envoy in January. While Smith started in the portfolio vowing to build on Australia’s relationship with India, his remarks sparked condemnation in parts of the Indian press and accusations of hypocrisy because Australia is happy to sell uranium to China. Smith says: “Why did the matter become public? It became public because I was asked about it at a press conference.” Smith adds just because the government opposes the sale of uranium to India does not mean it will oppose, through the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the US-India civil nuclear deal itself.

Dr Malcolm Cook, the Lowy Institute’s program director for East Asia, says having seen the Howard government taking a greater interest in India, there was nervousness in New Delhi about what the new government would do. The uranium sales issue, says Cook, was a “litmus test set up by India on how India should be treated – Australia failed that one. Every statement by the new government will be read through that.” Cook, however, thinks that Smith’s public comment was given with domestic politics in mind. “If you have to upset a country that sees itself as a major power you should only do it when you have to.”

As Rudd and Smith reflect on the controversies which have erupted over their dealings with India and Japan in their first months of office, they may do well to heed the advice of Cook. Historically, says Cook, Australia’s “relationship with the US has been the one most other countries have focused on to determine [Australia’s] place in the region and the world”. Today however “the perceptions of other countries about our relationship with China are increasingly important for our own relationship with them.”

Cook’s advice to the Prime Minister is to “change the narrative” on his relationship with China, and make it less a personal story about Kevin Rudd, and more a story about the Labor Party (since it was former Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who started diplomatic relations with Beijing), or a national story, about Australia’s growing interests in China. This is particularly pressing for Rudd as human rights issues return to the fore of Australia’s relations with Beijing.

Another issue which could become messy for Rudd is Afghanistan. The war there is widely regarded as unwinnable, and it is losing support in the West. Yet it is a war for which the Rudd government has pledged strong support, for a number of reasons. Backing the war in Afghanistan enabled Rudd to stand up his case for pulling out of Iraq, on the grounds Afghanistan was the moral war. Being a strong advocate on Afghanistan has also enabled Rudd to keep favour with Washington – hence the pressure Australia is putting on NATO countries to increase their commitments to the war, and the reason the Prime Minister went to Bucharest for a NATO summit – the first one an Australian prime minister has attended.

White points out that this is a risky strategy by Rudd. He says by taking such a high profile position on Afghanistan, Rudd risks drawing Australia into playing a bigger, and more protracted role in a war which is destined to continue for a long time, could result in many casualties, and will increasingly come to be seen by Australians as of little strategic value to themselves.

Rudd may have got through his first 100 days of foreign policy unscathed, but it is clear the next 100 are going to be a lot tougher to navigate. The Rudd government’s foreign policy record will, to a significant degree, be judged on how it handles the rising Asian powers and Afghanistan. The government has not made a decision yet on whether to commission a new foreign policy white paper, though a defence white paper is in development and will give a clearer picture of how Rudd sees Australia’s place in the world.

Rudd’s focus on China as a key foreign policy priority was made very clear during his trip to the US. The central issue for Rudd is how to carve out a role for a rising China in the Asia Pacific region. “There is no simple, one line answer to the question of how we should seek to engage China,” Rudd told the Brookings Institution in Washington.

And it is here, according to Robert Ayson, Director of Studies, Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence at the ANU, that Rudd’s biggest challenge on China lies. Disagreements over human rights issues in Tibet or sales of iron ore are “things that come up from time to time and can be irritants to the relationship but I don’t think they affect it in a wholesale way,” says Ayson. Instead, he says, the challenge for Rudd is “how he pursues his argument that China should be encouraged to be an active part of the region without giving the impression he is doing Beijing’s bidding.”

The criticism Rudd has received over Japan is an early example of the pitfalls the Prime Minister faces here. Rudd is very focused on the great powers US and China. But this focus must not come at the expense of Japan and India.

Cynthia Banham is Diplomatic Editor Of The Sydney Morning Herald.