Australia's new PM is old Asia hand

Posted in Other | 28-Nov-07 | Author: Andrew Symon| Source: Asia Times

Australia's newly-elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd
SINGAPORE - Perceptions can play an important role in shaping international relations and here Australia's prime minister-elect, Kevin Rudd, will take office with some advantages, especially in Asia.

As a fluent Mandarin speaker - the only Western leader of government now or ever, at least in contemporary times, with this ability - the one time diplomat will clearly be able to gain Beijing's interest and attention. This must carry benefits in diplomatic, security and trade negotiations when leaders meet on a bilateral basis or in multilateral forums.

Already this has been demonstrated at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' meeting in Sydney in September. As parliamentary leader of the federal Australian Labor Party, then the main opposition party, the 50-year-old Rudd joined Prime Minister John Howard in welcoming Chinese President Hu Jintao to Australia. Rudd broke into Mandarin after a brief introduction in English, upstaging Howard. Rudd later had a 30-minute meeting with Hu without resort to interpreters. And during the recent election campaign he was interviewed by Chinese television in Mandarin several times.

Appearances and style do count. While a Rudd Labor government will not depart radically from the foreign and security policies of Howard's conservative Liberal-National Party government, the relationship with the US and the Bush administration will not be the sort of lock-step affair that characterized ties between Canberra and Washington under Howard.

Rudd will demonstrate to Asia that his government is more independent of Washington through his commitment to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and sign the Kyoto Accord on reducing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and combating global warming. Australia will remain a loyal ally of the US but Rudd should torpedo the view of some in Asia of Canberra having a subservient relationship with Washington.

At the same time, Rudd has repeatedly affirmed that the US alliance, under the broad framework of the 1951 Australia-New Zealand-United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), will continue to be a cornerstone of Australian foreign and defense policies. The US military will continue to maintain important communications centers in the US satellite defense system and Australia will host joint and multi-country military operations with the US. Late on Saturday, with Labor’s success in the election secured, Rudd spoke with President Bush and plans to visit Washington early next year.

Australia will remain a loyal, although more independent ally of the US. This has been very much the usual Labor Party position in government despite left-wing elements in the party opposed to the US alliance. The troop withdrawal is more symbolic, with Australia having only 550 combat soldiers in Iraq and Rudd saying Australia will continue to provide aid for Iraqi reconstruction. But these initial measures over Kyoto and Iraq are important and will be seen by Asian governments and public opinion as marking a new era for Australia on the regional and international stages.

Already, Indonesia's President Bambang Yudohoyono has invited Rudd to attend the key United Nations meeting in Bali in December to determine a successor framework to the Kyoto Accord when that expires in 2012, while Malaysia's leader, Abdullah Badawi, says Rudd's Iraq plan will "improve the country's international standing".

Australia under Labor will put more emphasis on pursuing Australian objectives through multilateral diplomacy in the UN and regional forums as against the more bilateral style of Howard's government and in particular its very heavy weighting on close alignment with the US position. It was the lack of UN support for the US's Iraq invasion in 2003 that is the reason for Labor's opposition to Australian troop deployment, in contrast to Labor's support for the first Gulf War in 1990-91 when in government under Bob Hawke, and Labor's support for the UN sanctioned military invasion in 2001 against the al-Qaeda- supporting Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US.

Indeed, there are suggestions that Australia will increase its forces in Afghanistan as it withdraws from Iraq. Rudd in fact may find that Afghanistan becomes an early concern as the apparent strengthening of Taliban forces point to a long struggle ahead. And the situation there has started to come into sharper focus for the Australian public with four soldiers killed in fighting in the last few months.

Looking ahead at US-Australia relations, should the Democrats take the presidency in the US in 2008, which seems very likely, then almost certainly Canberra, under the moderately left of center Labor government, and Washington will see eye to eye on the importance of a multilateral system, the Middle East, Iraq, Kyoto, global warming and many other issues

In Australia's relations with Asia, there will be many continuities with the outgoing John Howard government, with Rudd's government building further on work done over the last 11 years.

Howard was perhaps unfairly seen in Asia, especially in his earlier years as prime minister, as being not particularly comfortable in Asia and in some ways more of a 1950s and '60s man, preferring an old-fashioned Australia tied closely to Britain.

Yet many overlook the fact that Howard presided over an unprecedented strengthening of Australia's economic links with China, driven especially by exports of Australian mineral, energy and agricultural commodities and increasing Chinese investment in Australia. There has also been remarkable growth in the numbers of immigrants from China settling in Australia as well as growth in students studying and tourists visiting down under.

Under his watch, China's Hu addressed the Australian Parliament in October 2003, the first time this was done by any Asian leader, a day after the address by George W Bush. Negotiations for a free trade or preferential trade agreement with China were also begun, following the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004.

The Howard government also differentiated - although probably regretting that it did so publicly - Australia's policy over Taiwan from that of the US. In August 2004, then foreign minister Alexander Downer during a visit to Beijing said that under the ANZUS Treaty, Australia was not automatically committed to provide military support to the US in any Taiwan Strait crisis.

This is true as the treaty in fact is short and quite general although Australia is still obligated under the treaty to act diplomatically with the US in such a situation. Rudd, then shadow foreign minister, more carefully stated that Australia’s interest was to see the use of peaceful means to deal with tensions and that Australia was not obliged to say what it would or would not do in the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, Howard also sought to strengthen relations after a fairly passive start. Relations with Indonesia, especially, plummeted as a result of Australia's military support for East Timor's independence as the head of the UN force sent in 1999 to pacify the country after Indonesian military inspired militias went on a rampage. Here the US alliance was important as Washington pressured Jakarta to "invite" the UN to send the force, although the US did not contribute American troops.

Relations though have been rebuilt with Jakarta, as symbolized by Howard's effort to attend Yudhoyono's inauguration in August 2004, the only leader outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to do so. Underlining further the effort that Howard's government has put into Indonesia-Australia relations is the new and broad security pact signed between the two countries in November 2006, replacing a 1995 agreement that was jettisoned by Jakarta during the Timor crisis.

As far as Southeast Asia and Asean as a whole are concerned, again the Howard government can boast of real advances. Australia is pursuing a free trade agreement with ASEAN and on the diplomatic and security front has signed the 1976 ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, after some concern that it might cut against ANZUS, so that Australia could become a founding member of the East Asia summit, first held in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005, joining the 10 ASEAN countries, Japan, China, South Korea, India and New Zealand.

Despite all this, Australia's relations with Asia have probably been hurt by measures Howard took in response to Islamic extremism and terrorism internationally and the possible threat to Australia domestically, especially in the wake of the Bali bombings in October 2002.

The specter of Islamic terrorism within Australia has led to an alarming degree of xenophobia. As many leading figures - from former conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser to former Labor prime minister Paul Keating - warn, Bali has encouraged a climate of suspicion, insularity and narrow nationalism, seriously eroding the strong multicultural and multiracial policies and attitudes that had developed under both conservative and Labor governments since the 1970s.

Severe new security laws have been established, there has been often heavy-handed detention of illegal immigrants from the Middle East, an "Australian knowledge and values" test has been established that immigrants must pass before gaining Australian citizenship, and there have been some nasty cases of street abuse and racism towards Australians of Middle Eastern and also African background.

All this has reinforced the still sometimes strong view among people in Asia that Australia is still beset by racism. So a critical task of the Rudd government will be to re-cast and re-assert a non-discriminatory and "fair go" Australia. This will in turn enhance Australia's moral capital and "soft power" in regional and international forums.

To this end, what also will not have escaped notice in Asia is the fact that Rudd's daughter, Jessica, recently married an Australian of Chinese background. In election night celebrations on Saturday in Brisbane they were both on stage and under the spotlight with the rest of the immediate Rudd family. While interracial marriages are hardly a big deal in Australia - and of course there are plenty in Asia, Europe and North America - it does help to promote Australia as the open, tolerant and inclusive country that Rudd has declared is his objective to strengthen.

Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based journalist and analyst. In Australia he worked in the Senate of the national Parliament and as a ministerial speech writer in the 1980s. He has been working in Southeast Asia since 1992.