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Julia's tour: Carefully does it

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COMMENTS

29 April 2011 12:00

Julia Gillard is far from having a sure touch for foreign policy. Her approach to the international stage is marked by caution and convention.

That should not be read as a criticism.

A leader who can do caution and convention on the world stage is worth having. Imagination, flair and ambition are always welcome. That is not what Gillard offers.

The Prime Minister does foreign policy in the same tones as domestic politics. On the home front, that carefulness is causing all sorts of questions about her leadership longevity, not least within the Labor Party.

But in the foreign arena, a leader can go a fair distance with a less-is-more demeanour. A recitation of past verities can pass as consistency and firmness of purpose rather than lack of ambition. 

Gillard's hosts in Tokyo and Beijing have plenty of experience with political apparatchiks who confine themselves to the atmospherics and the big picture and seldom depart from the speeches written by the bureaucrats. 

The media age demands instant results, so it is worth remarking that Gillard has been at the helm for less than a year. 

At the same point in his development as a leader, John Howard was still getting foreign policy pointers from a Kiwi Prime Minister who'd had six years in the top job (thanks Jim Bolger). And as Howard later confessed, in his first year as PM his government made a real hash of dealing with China.

It is already possible to list what foreign affairs may do to Gillard. (Here's my list of the top five issues.)

It is still much harder to say what Gillard may want to achieve in foreign policy. Yet by her words and her visits, the PM is starting to sketch the terms and reach of her careful and conventional sense of foreign possibilities.

She has strapped herself to the US alliance with a fervour to match Harold Holt's vow to go 'all the way with LBJ'. Gillard has promised to be in Afghanistan for the rest of the decade and emoted to the US Congress about America's unique status: 'You can do anything still'.

The photo of Gillard handballing the footy to Obama in the Oval Office counts as her LBJ moment (and it gave her a temporary alliance-flavoured boost in the polls that a Hawke or a Holt would understand).

The previous column pointed to the vision-via-visit message Gillard sent by the order of her North Asia tour: first to Japan, then South Korea and finally to China.

Just as Gillard went to Washington to mark the 60th anniversary of the formal alliance with the US, so she journeyed to Korea to remember the 60th anniversary of the battle of Kapyong, one of Australia's major engagements in the Korean War. 

Gillard may not have any more feel for history than she does for foreign policy, but the on-the-job training of leadership travel is giving her some instruction on what it is like for Australia to venture into the giants playground of Asia (and line up with the US in a war against China).

The words the PM has offered in Asia have seldom surprised, but they are fleshing out that cautious and conventional approach.

The significant effort at doing Geopolitics 101 on the trip was in the 'keynote address' to the Japan National Press Club: 'The Asia-Pacific is a region in strategic flux, where changing power relativities are playing out against the backdrop of historical mistrust and conflict. It is vital that we build a robust architecture of security and cooperation to guarantee the peace and prosperity of our people in the years ahead'.

The flux-and-fix language is straight out of the K.Rudd manual: Asia is rocketing along and we need a lot more work on the steering and the crash controls. John Howard offered plenty of similar analysis in the final phases of his time in office.

In Korea, Gillard could note this was her second visit as PM, following last November's G20 meeting. The shared middle power and alliance perspective could be stressed:'We are both alliance partners of the United States, seeing the US presence in Asia as fundamental to regional stability. We are G20 economies, members of the East Asia Summit and active participants in APEC. As middle powers, we are committed to multilateralism and believe in doing our part to strengthen a rules-based global order'.

In Beijing, the big speech gave early prominence to Australia’s right to be 'clear and robust' in what it says to China about human rights. That was immediately tied to the sweetener: 'We do so in the context of what has become a comprehensive and constructive relationship between our two nations; a relationship grounded in a clear understanding of each other and our interests and which is strengthened by hard work and deepened by mutual respect'.

Ah, the joys and uses of 'mutual respect'. What a handy phrase that is in dealing with China.

In the strange way that compromises and accommodations can play out in foreign relations, China has actually committed itself to Australia's right to be robust in bilateral expressions about human rights. That was the basis on which the Howard Government decided to cease berating Beijing in multilateral forums and instead create a bilateral human rights dialogue.

At the peak of that bilateral relationship, Julia Gillard is merely following convention by making human rights a proper part of the summit conversation. The Australian words may well flop unheeded to the carpet. Or even be 'laughed off' as Philip Dorling noted this week in his latest WikiLeaks instalment.

However much it may irritate China, this effort at dialogue about internal affairs is now an established element of what Beijing and Canberra do together — even in the hands of a cautious and conventional new leader from Australia.

Photo by Flickr user Yoshi.

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