Rudd's Asia plan sinks in Beijing

Taipei Times
By Sushil Seth
Thursday, Jun 05, 2008, Page 8

If Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin speaker, was banking on his understanding of China to forge a new relationship with Beijing, it has obviously not worked so far.

His government initially sought to ingratiate itself with Beijing by snubbing Japan and India. Tokyo was not amused when it was left out of Rudd’s recent major trip to the US, Europe and China.

The Rudd government also dumped the quadrilateral security dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia.

Even worse, this was done at a joint press conference with the visiting Chinese foreign minister.

With Beijing wary of anything that looks like a containment policy, Australia’s decision gave the impression that China had played a role in the formulation of Canberra’s foreign policy — at least regarding China.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t received well by other dialogue partners.

India was also left out of the loop on the question of uranium supply, toward which the government of former Australian prime minister John Howard had been favorably disposed as part of an emerging US-India strategic nexus.

Beijing couldn’t have asked for more from the new Australian government, confirming the widely held view that Rudd is biased toward China.

Believing that proving his China credentials early on would give him license to speak freely on China’s human rights problem during the Tibetan unrest, Rudd was frank during his visit to China, advising Beijing to hold dialogue with the Dalai Lama and his representatives.

This was all happening in the midst of the Olympic torch relay, when protests were staged in London, Paris and elsewhere. The protesters were also targeting the Chinese paramilitary security presence surrounding the torch.

At the time, Rudd declared that security for the Olympic torch relay would only be handled by Australian police as it passed through Canberra.

This, however, seems to have added to Beijing’s displeasure, which it expressed by ignoring Rudd’s advice.

In other words, Rudd’s special relationship with China started to unravel before it could even take off.

At another level, Beijing was hoping it could receive sympathetic treatment from the new Rudd government on the price of natural resources, such as iron ore that China imports from Australia.

In the last few years, prices of such resources have soared, largely as a result of growing demand in China.

One way of getting some control over prices is for China to have an equity stake in Australian corporations engaged in the extraction and exporting of primary resources.

While Beijing has aggressively sought to acquire such a stake, it has been met with some resistance, which it construes as discriminatory.

Writing in the Australian, national affairs correspondent Jennifer Hewett said: “The Rudd government is becoming extremely concerned about the prospect of ever-increasing Chinese investment in Australian resources companies.”

It is no mere coincidence that, at about the same time, an Australian-operated gold mining company in China would come under severe attack on Chinese TV and other media over its acquisition of the mine at a very low cost and the severe environmental impact it has had on the region.

John Garnaut, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Beijing correspondent, reported on May 12 that: “The 30-minute tirade, which advocated even tougher restrictions on foreign investment in Chinese mines, was broadcast nationally twice last week and the transcript reprinted on more than 500 Chinese internet news and blog sites.”

As it happens, there is a convergence of sorts between Beijing’s resentment over Rudd’s criticism over Tibet and the economics and politics of Australia’s mining, investment and export of natural resources.

As columnist Ian Verrender put it in the Sydney Morning Herald: “Soon after delivering his message in Mandarin to Beijing [during Rudd’s China visit] about human rights concerns [in Tibet], he was confronted with accusations that Australia treated Chinese investment differently than money from other nations.”

With its economic success and political clout, China is experiencing a rise in nationalist fervor.

It believes that the timing of the Tibetan unrest — to coincide with the Olympic torch relay — was a conspiracy to undermine its emergence as a superpower, with the Olympic Games as a spectacular backdrop.

Australia’s joining the criticism of its actions in Tibet has dented Rudd’s credentials as a friend of Beijing.

In its courting of Chinese authorities, the Rudd government has sought to substitute China for the whole of Asia. Among the three pillars of his government’s foreign policy (spelled out in a signed article not long before Rudd became prime minister), while the first two focus on “our alliance with the United States [and] our membership [at] the United Nations,” the third pillar would comprise “a policy of comprehensive engagement with the Asia-Pacific region.”

So far, however, engagement with the Asia-Pacific has been mainly with China.

Japan and India aside, Southeast Asia seems to have escaped the notice of the Rudd government.

Criticizing Howard’s Asia policy in the same article, Rudd wrote: “In our own region, Australia has increasingly the look and feel of an outsider…[because] Mr Howard has emphasized Australia’s differences from, rather than commonalities with, the region.”

Rudd then promised that under his Labor Party government, Australia “will revert to a long tradition of engagement with the region” with a view to “find Australia’s security in Asia, not from it.”

With such scant notice taken so far of Southeast Asia, it is not surprising that Indonesia, the largest ASEAN country, has felt left out. Even more so because Indonesia has been routinely featured as Australia’s important — if not the most important — neighbor.

The Rudd government was expected to energize the entire gamut of Australia’s relations with ASEAN countries.

But the early signs do not look promising.

With his anticipated close relations with Beijing, Rudd was perhaps hoping to become an interlocutor between China and the West. By virtue of that, Australia would also gain new respect in Asia.

But that strategy doesn’t seem to be working. The Rudd government may need to rework its Asia policy by recognizing its different components and dealing with them in their own right rather than expecting them to fit Canberra’s grand plan.