Australian Election 2010: Where to next in the Aust-China relationship?

Following his recent trip to China during the eventful Australian election, Rowan Callick reflects on the long-term future of the Australia-China relationship.

The Australian election intrigued people in China.
Their interest was piqued by the surprising removal of Kevin Rudd, and they were quietly impressed by the calmness of the country as days dragged by following the August 21 poll without any firm outcome.
No one firmly in charge, yet life went on.

I was several times invited to comment on this chain of events by China Central TV, which provided me with an audience of several hundred million, a little beyond the usual in Australia.

Attention has been cast on Australia in recent times by the visits of three members of the politburo standing committee of the ruling communist party – whose nine members comprise the core rulers of China – within 15 months, and by the range of awkward issues that emerged last year including the Stern Hu case, the visit of Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, and the failure of Chinalco’s multi billion dollar move on Rio Tinto.

The special interest was originally sparked by the emergence of Kevin Rudd as the first Western leader to speak Chinese.
The Chinese media provided the most detailed international coverage of Julia Gillard’s ousting of Rudd.

The rest of the world focused on Gillard being Australia’s first female Prime Minister. British media tended to point out her Welsh birth. But China’s state news service Xinhua provided full details of the transition from Kevin Rudd, known in Chinese as Lu Kewen.
Gillard is not well known in China, which she visited only once, 10 years ago, as an opposition MP – although her Labor party has long celebrated especially close links with the People’s Republic.

China became an arena in which Rudd’s weaknesses became apparent earlier, perhaps because it is an area of such special significance to him.

When he became prime minister, a sense of mild exultation coursed through the community of people engaged in the relationship between the countries. This was not only because he speaks Chinese, but also because of his understanding of China – not always the same thing.

This appeared to provide Australia with a clear opportunity for differentiation from the rest of the West, and thus potentially better economic terms and a sound strategic relationship, or dialogue. Bruce Hawker, the Labor Party spin doctor, wrote in the South China Morning Post after the 2007 election that this “heralds a new era in Sino-Australian relations.”

Yet when Rudd fell, Xinhua’s early, detailed story was headlined in the English version: “Reasons for failure of previous Australian PM Rudd.” There was widespread relief, in the Australian business community and in Chinese official circles.

Rudd’s approach to China had become unpredictable, especially exacerbating for a state that revolves around planning and preventing surprises. Australian business people involved with China felt left out in the cold. And Rudd failed to bring the broader Australian population along with him on the road towards better understanding how we might relate to China.

Rudd had appeared to set the stage for a strong Chinese relationship with his masterful move to engage President Hu Jintao in Chinese at the Sydney APEC summit as the 2007 election approached, indicating how he could effortlessly help Australia step up a gear in relating to our great new economic partner.

Oddly, despite the warm applause from Australian voters for this political coup, Rudd then stepped away from public engagement over China, as if he still feared a public backlash.

On his first visit to China as prime minister, in April 2008, he delivered in Chinese a speech at Beijing University in which he offered to be a ‘zhengyou’, a true friend, to China in its global journey. Such a friend, he said, “offers unflinching advice and counsels restraint.” In this context, he spoke of Tibet, that “it is necessary to recognise there are significant human rights problems” there.
This kind of friendship, he said, “I know is treasured in China’s political tradition.” The truth of that was soon tested. When Rudd met China’s leaders as head of government for the first time, he discovered they did not appear to treasure his “unflinching advice” – and instead he received a dressing-down over Tibet from President Hu.

He did not deliver another substantial speech on China for another two years, despite the relationship suffering a roller-coaster ride – before the weight of the resources trade at the heart of the relationship ensured that stability was restored.

His snubbing of former ambassador to Canberra Fu Ying in a TV studio in London, where she had also become ambassador, took on a yet more awkward shade when she was promoted to Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, and is now viewed as a potential Minister.
At the Copenhagen climate summit, Rudd appeared to expect China’s representatives led by Premier Wen Jiabao to overturn their political culture, and cut a deal with foreign leaders that would include greater imposts on Chinese industry. But this could never have happened.

When Rudd chose to re-enter the China discourse, by delivering the George Morrison address at the Australian National University in April, he spoke more like an academic, as he weighed the virtues of the New Sinology, and failed to spell out how Australia should proceed in relating with China on contested issues such as investment and security.

The election campaign failed to refer substantially to China or to foreign relations in general. That is no shock; all such campaigns around the world are inevitably domestically focused.

But this one was extraordinarily introverted. It is hard to think of any past leader, Labor or Liberal, in recent decades who has risen to the top in either party with less of a track record of interest in international affairs – one of the great special roles of a prime minister – than Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott. Abbott’s book “Battlelines” concentrated on the “Anglosphere” – though his well drafted speech at Asialink’s Canberra conference a few months ago reflected, hopefully, an emerging interest in our region.

Gillard’s sole foreign foray as Prime Minister, the “regional solution” to asylum-seekers, was poorly conceived and executed.
Abbott pledged to visit key Asia-Pacific neighbours, including China, soon, if he should win. That would be welcome, but doesn’t really comprise policy.

The key question is not one of expertise. That can, to a degree, be gained on the job. The crucial quality is of interest, of focus, of a capacity to consult broadly and intelligently on global issues.

It was not as if the world had magically become benign or irrelevant. Australia continues to depend on the savings of foreigners to maintain its economic prosperity. It was above all the favourable trend in our terms of trade, thanks to Asia’s and especially China’s hunger for Australian  resources that kept the country from sinking into recession during the global financial crisis.

The troubles between China and Australia last year have largely been set to one side as we focus on our thriving economic enmeshment, but this crucial, complex and growing relationship requires intelligent attention. Signs of renewed competition for strategic influence in Asia between China, our crucial economic partner, and the USA, our security ally, require the utmost attention.

Indrani Bagchi, the diplomatic editor of The Times of India, stressed earlier this year in an interview: “Ultimately, it’s the strength of a nation’s bilateral relations that gives it the heft it needs in the multilateral sphere.”

Rio Tinto’s chief executive for China and energy, Doug Ritchie, says there is a duality in Australia’s relationship with China, describing it as a “sense of admiration mixed with fear, and optimism undermined by doubt”.

Speaking at the launch of the 2010 China Update Book at the Australian National University in Canberra, Ritchie said: “We are grateful for the economic benefits we have enjoyed as a result of China’s phenomenal growth, but we are afraid of the level of dependence this has created between our two nations.

“We speak of our desire for a close relationship with China, but are nonetheless startled when the dragon turns up on our doorstep asking to come in.”

The first big set-piece our prime minister will attend following the election will be the Group of 20 summit in Seoul on November 11-12.
It would be a good idea if they don’t wait for that event to introduce themselves, as fresh and largely unknown faces, in the region – if they had already flown to Beijing to meet the leadership there, before the G20 gathering.

After having a ‘Zhongguo tong’, a China expert, in charge, we’re now on a sharp learning curve. But Gillard and Abbott are both fast learners on core issues. The crucial test is the degree to which they really want to learn about China.

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