Comment: Leadership change and the Australia-China relationship


The dramatic ousting of Julia Gillard as Labor party leader and thus prime minister by Kevin Rudd, the man she had herself ousted three years earlier, naturally raises questions about whether or to what extent the election at which he will now lead the party, may affect Australia’s vital relations with China, writes Rowan Callick.

There are three crucial settings to consider: the attitudes of the Australian public, and the positions of Rudd and of the coalition led by Tony Abbott that will seek to cut Rudd’s second coming as prime minister to a mere matter of months.
The Lowy Institute’s annual poll on attitudes to international affairs has recently been published. This was conducted in March, with just over 1,000 respondents to a large range of questions.
A convincing 87 percent believe it is possible for Australia to have a good relationship with China and the USA at the same time.
A commanding 76 percent view China as the most important economy to Australia, with the US far behind at 16 per cent. More, however, place a higher value on the relationship with the US: 48 percent, against 37 percent saying China.
China will eventually replace the US as the world’s leading superpower, according to 61 per cent. In an international survey by pollsters Pew in 2011, Australia was one of only four countries, out of 23 polled, which took this view. In the Lowy poll, 12 percent said that China is already the top superpower.
Seventy percent of respondents said that “the demand for Australian resources like China” was a major reason why Australia has avoided moving into recession following the global financial crisis.
Yet 57 percent say that “the Australian government is allowing too much investment from China.” And a significant minority, 41 percent, believe that “China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.”
In the “thermometer” measuring how warm respondents feel to a list of nations, sentiment towards China has cooled a little since 2012, falling 5 degrees to 54 degrees.
So Australians tend to be more favourably inclined towards China than people in most other western countries, but retain a degree of ambivalence. People are guarded and need to be won over by a convincing narrative about where the relationship heads from here. The Asia white paper produced under Julia Gillard was net positive, but has now done its awareness-raising work, and cannot be expected to provide much further momentum. Gillard’s visit to China in April cemented a “strategic” relationship, with annual meetings between top leaders, a new basis for going forward – though the content of those talks will need to be well targeted.
Rudd’s relationship with China is complex. He is famously a Chinese speaker, having studied the language at the Australian National University. He has about 350,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China’s dominant version of Twitter, he speaks and writes widely on China for international audiences.
And yet, as Professor Mobo Gao, director of the Adelaide University’s Confucius Institute, has pointed out, “China never forgets.”
Sometimes it is required to forgive, however, if someone who has been an irritant takes on a role in which Beijing has to deal with him or her. Chris Patten is a good example. An irritant as governor in the dying days of British Hong Kong, then Foreign Minister of the European Union.
And now, Rudd. High hopes were held for him as a Chinese speaker, but they were disrupted when soon after landing in China for the first time as prime minister, he delivered a speech at Beida, Peking University, in which he criticised the government’s human rights record in Tibet and proclaimed that Australia – or he personally – could be the leaders’ zhengyou or true friend, able to tell them home truths. After that, things got worse, with a series of altercations capped by rude comments about China at the Copenhagen climate summit, a Defence White Paper that indicated Rudd saw China as a military threat, then Wikileaks’ exposure of a conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which China featured prominently and negatively.
The hundreds of thousands of Chinese followers of his Sina Weibo posts remain fans, but their government will deal with him correctly but retaining a little distance. They get on fine with Bob Carr the Foreign Minister. No “reward” such as a rapid conclusion to the long drawn out free trade deal negotiations should be expected until after the election. But Rudd has convinced his own Labor colleagues that he has changed sufficiently to warrant a second chance – no one should discount the possibility that he can achieve the same in relations with China, which he knows so well.
Beijing is familiar with Julie Bishop, who would become Foreign Minister and possibly, even also Trade Minister in a coalition government. She has done her homework, travelling to China fairly frequently, and impressing officials there that she is a good listener, something of a rarity among politicians.
The said in a recent Australia China Business Council speech: “I join the ranks of optimists in regard to China’s future economic growth and China’s integration into the international system.”
She acknowledges – something long overdue – that “New Zealand has certainly shown us the way” in building trade links with China, having concluded its own FTA five years ago, since when trade has tripled. She says: “A coalition foreign policy will be focussed on what I call economic diplomacy.”
Most importantly, she added: “Foreign investment from China will continue to be welcomed, subject to the national interest test” that has only so far inhibited two major deals, even though some still see this is two too many.
What will Tony Abbott, the putative new prime minister, do? He delivered a well thought out speech in Beijing last year – with that important exception of his negative remark on investment, which Bishop has indicated was an aberration, and that coalition policy has moved on.
Like John Howard, he may be expected as prime minister to be attracted by Chinese strengths which echo those he also values – a can-do approach to economic development, a Confucian discipline in governance, an intense loyalty to family.
Beijing, and those very many Australians and Chinese focused on the relationship, will be watching this election with intense interest. 
*Rowan Callick is Asia-Pacific editor Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian, and author of Party Time: Who Runs China and How (Black Inc Books)



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