On one view, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's leaked conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about China in March last year is simply banal: a salutary reminder that very important people can, and often do, have very unimportant conversations.
But even the banal can be interesting in some contexts. The China passage of the Rudd-Clinton cable is intriguing precisely because it provides a window into the way the US and Australian governments talk about the most important foreign policy question in the world today.
The exchange, as reported, seemed to consist of a rather random selection of observations and assertions that broke little new ground and reached no conclusions. This tends to confirm my hypothesis that the two governments aren’t engaging in a serious dialogue on the issue that will do more than anyother to shape Australia's future security and prosperity. If so, it constitutes major failure on the part of the Australian government to fulfill its foreign policy responsibilities.
But there’s another interpretation of the cable that makes it much more important. A lot depends on how we interpret the cable's laconic account of what Rudd actually said:
Calling himself ‘a brutal realist on China,’ Rudd argued for ‘multilateral engagement with bilateral vigour’ — integrating China effectively into the international community and allowing it to demonstrate greater responsibility, all while also preparing to deploy force if everything goes wrong.
The implications of this statement depend on whether the Asian order into which Rudd wants China to fit is the one which has kept Asia peaceful for the past 40 years, led by the United States, or whether he envisages the evolution of a different order in Asia as China grows.
If Rudd was expressing the first view, and hence meant that we should be prepared to 'deploy force' if China refuses to accept the indefinite perpetuation of the current American-led order in Asia, then he was sending a very chilling message indeed. That’s because it’s almost certain that China won’t agree to work within the current US-led order as its power grows to approachthe United States’. It will insist on a bigger share of regional leadership than it has enjoyed in the past.
If this is Rudd's position, he’s advocating a vision of Asia's future and endorsing aUS approach to China which more or less guarantees contested and possibly hostile relations between Washington and Beijing in future. This is a policy that would make it almost certain that Australia would have to choose between Washington and Beijing. Not in Australia's interests, to put it mildly.
If he was expressing the second view, then he was on much sounder ground. But in that case, it’s even more striking that he didn’t say anything (or, at least, anything interesting enough for the US note-taker to record) about how exactly that new order should evolve. He apparently said nothing about the central issue: what should we aim to preserve in negotiating a new order with China, and what should we be willing to compromise? This is the fundamental question about Asia's future, and one in which Australian interest are deeply engaged.
What a missed opportunity to shape American thinking.
So which view did he mean? If wetry to judge by his position in other contexts, the data is mixed. In his speeches launching the APc, Rudd often spoke of the need to build a new order in Asia, which suggests he might take the second of these views. But looking at the Defence White Paper, and the way he and Smith signed up to support US leadership in Asia at last month's AUSMIN, without any acknowledgment of questions about how that leadership might evolve as power shifts in Asia, then it seems likely he was expressing the first view. Perhaps he doesn't really know himself.
All this underscores how on the most important foreign policy issue for a generation, Australian diplomacy is at best indolent, muddled and incoherent, and perhaps profoundly and tragically mistaken.
(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)
Hugh White is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University.