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Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 10:28 | SYDNEY
Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 10:28 | SYDNEY

Rudd's bilateral ups and downs



21 January 2010 09:58

Why does Kevin Rudd have as many downs as ups in the key bilaterals?

In my Report Card column, the Prime Minister got a B- for foreign policy, but the mark was significantly boosted by one multilateral achievement – the elevation of the G20. Absent that gain for Australia at the top table, the mark would have been more like a B- or lower.

The real interest is in uncovering the reasons for the bilaterals underperfomance. Using the motoring metaphor, I scored Rudd as having two relationships that are powering along, even accelerating (South Korea and the US); one relationship that is ticking over relatively smoothly despite some big bumps on the road (Indonesia); but three that are running rough, perhaps even going backwards (China, Japan and India).

Handling the US relationship is vital, and Rudd has been able to do the business with both a Republican and a Democratic president. The withdrawal from Iraq didn't cause any public bad blood with George W Bush. And Bush delivered a real bonus in the fading moments of his presidency by hosting the first G20 summit.

South Korea got a new president just after Australia got a new prime minister, and the two leaders have helped each other do business on the G20 and even on Rudd's Asia Pacific community. South Korea is as obsessed with China as Rudd is, and has just as many question about what is happening in Japan.

With Indonesia, Rudd has put a lot of effort into his personal ties with SBY, carrying on from John Howard. Boat people problems have to be factored in as an almost permanent part of the relationship, yet things have been much worse in times past.

Two decades ago, I did an interview in Jakarta with Indonesia's Co-Ordinating Minister for Security, who was happy to confirm that the crowded refugee camps meant there'd been a change in policy — Indonesia was giving fresh food and fuel to new boats from Indo-China and waving them off to Australia. So mark the Indonesia bilateral as ticking over relatively smoothly, particularly when set against the record of history.

The three bilats causing pain are with China, Japan and India.

China and India have one core element in common. In both cases, problems arose because Australia said 'No'. Saying 'No' can be a good and proper position to take in defence of national interest.  But it doesn't make for smooth motoring. Much of the heat from both Beijing and New Delhi can be waved aside as the anger of those who have rapidly inflating views of their rightful prerogatives.

Beijing last year decided to test Rudd and delivered a period of concerted pain. A diplomatic ceasefire was declared on 30 October, but the scars are fresh. China's mounting wave of investment will continue to ask questions of Australia and its leaders. Canberra's ability to say 'No' will be under constant test. It is not in Australia's interest to be as automatically acquiescent to China as has become the case in much of East Asia. Rudd has been at the wheel during a rough period but does not have to carry all the blame for the problem.

Much the same judgement can be made about India and its demand that Australia should sell uranium. Australia is maddening India by disproving one of New Delhi's old prejudices — we are not automatically following the lead of our ally, the US. I've argued before that to put the choice at its starkest, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is more valuable to Australia than is our relationship with India.

Thankfully, we don't need to decide between those two points. The 'No' position on uranium sales seems to be quietly shifting inside the Labor Party, and the International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament will be an important stepping stone towards an eventual accommodation with India. But Canberra should be in no hurry.

The issue of the safety of Indian students in Australia is both a problem and an opportunity. The furore offers Australia a chance to tackle deep-seated Indian memories of the old White Australia policy. The diplomatic and media challenge is to tell the story of modern Australia as a rainbow nation – a dynamic multicultural success. Dealing with India's vibrant media (vibrant is a nicer word than raucous) is a challenge. But as Google is showing in China, the India challenge is far preferable to trying to get any sort of open debate on a tough issue in China.

Where Rudd gets a clear black mark is with Japan. Rather than saying 'No', he was guilty of not saying much at all. Granted, Japan was otherwise engaged, conducting its version of a political revolution. But in launching his crusade for an Asia Pacific community, Rudd didn't pay proper attention to our natural ally in Asia. Mark Japan as the bilateral failure where Rudd bears the most responsibility.

Photo by Flickr user Jim Grady, used under a Creative Commons license.

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