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China: Getting from row to kow-tow

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COMMENTS

31 August 2009 13:37

China's leaders launched a campaign of diplomatic punishment against Australia and it will need a nod from the top to get a ceasefire. The problem that will obsess Canberra in the next two months is twofold: how many more hits will Beijing deliver, and what should be the tone and colour of the verbal kow-tow China expects, possibly when Rudd meets Hu Jintao at the East Asia Summit or APEC summit.

It will not be sufficient for Rudd to tell Hu that Australia has done nothing wrong and it is time for China to get sensible. That is true, but rather beside the point. China's leadership approved the declaration of the diplomatic cold war. Beijing will decide on the end. To get to that point, Canberra is going to have to play its part in the theatrics of a meeting-of-minds by the leaders.

The words will matter because they will frame future relations between the two governments, but perhaps also re-frame Rudd for Australia's voters. We have it on the authority of the Prime Minister's brother that the Opposition attacks on Rudd the Sinophile have sent a shiver through Labor's antennae. Here's the comment from Greg Rudd — from his vantage point as a Beijing-based consultant — about the Opposition tactics and the impact on his brother:

Should the Opposition Leader in Australia have broken tradition on a bipartisan approach to China in an effort to wedge the Prime Minister, using the argument that, “the PM has a close relationship with China, maybe it’s too close?”, turning a positive into a negative? No, all politics and no policy never lead to a healthy outcome. But the opposition has spooked the government on China to a degree.

Rudd is going to have to cop the inevitable charge about caving in to Chinese pressure. That's what any Opposition would say. And in some shape or form, it is what Beijing will demand. The domestic politics must shape but can not totally define the diplomacy.

The previous column explored how John Howard coped with a similar crisis created by China in 1996. The Howard-Jiang meeting on the sidelines of APEC worked. Both leaders could claim an agreement for a fresh start. Things had been bad, now they would be better. Calm ensued.

The deal did shape the way Howard Government approached China in the decade that followed. So the wording of what Beijing (and Australia's Opposition) will see as a kow-tow will matter for the future relationship. Rudd cannot give too much. For both domestic and diplomatic reasons, the deal has to be acceptable and workable.  

Setting the tone is complicated by this extraordinary moment in China's rise. The 2008 global crisis delivered recognition and status that might have exceeded what even Beijing hoped for. China’s ascendancy is no longer in prospect. It has arrived. The acknowledgements of this moment are myriad.

The books are churning out. As one example: Martin Jacques' When China Rules the World: The end of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. TIME magazine — so important in proclaiming that the 20th century belonged to America — had a poignant cover a few weeks ago asking, 'Can China Save the World?' The answer offered by TIME in the bowels of the accompanying article was 'Not yet'. That equivocation would have little impact on the cover image of the Chinese panda pumping up the globe and the tag line about China's astonishing economy.

All this is the context for the most significant of the outside judgements, the one offered by  Barack Obama on 27 July that 'the relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century.' His prediction builds on — but does not eclipse — the key China thoughts offered by his two presidential predecessors.

Bill Clinton said one of the key questions for the 21st century would be how China defined its greatness. George W Bush campaigned in 2000 on the basis that China would be the US's strategic competitor. China is still a competitor, yet it is also the US's greatest creditor. Strange days indeed.

At this moment of geopolitical and geoeconomic triumph, Beijing will not see much need to let Kevin Rudd off lightly.

What sort of script should Rudd take into his meeting with Hu? What does he concede and where does he stand firm? And how to present the private deal to the Oz hacks while staying true to the spirit of whatever is agreed with Hu? Turn your mind to the brief you'd give the Prime Minister. Give us your thoughts and predictions on how Rudd should handle what Asian journalists delight in call a 'four eyes meeting'. With your help, we'll try to channel a column on what the Prime Minister could/should say during and after his one hour meeting with China's President, whenever or wherever it happens.

Photo by flickr user silverlinedwinnebago, used under a Creative Commons license.

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