Sunday 29 Nov 2020 | 08:41 | SYDNEY
Sunday 29 Nov 2020 | 08:41 | SYDNEY


Graeme Dobell

3 September 2010 09:33

For Australia, China has shifted from key bilateral relationship to the regional paramount power, and shapes as a system-level game changer. Kevin Rudd's term offered some markers for the movement in Canberra's China perspective.

The Rudd experience of China was notable because his predecessor, John Howard, managed for so long (in public) to hold to the narrower, bilateral conception of what China might mean. Howard maintained a laser-sharp focus on the trade bonanza to harvest the bilateral dividend. Utterly pragmatic, Howard sought to put other issues of region, alliance and international system in a separate, sealed box. This was a noteworthy achievement.  

The coming of Rudd marked the moment when the box had become a Pandora's brew too important to ignore. Rudd had neither the character nor the personal history to emulate Howard's approach. History, anyway, was shifting rapidly beyond that comfortable bilateral zone where it could be about trade alone.

Nicholas Stuart, in Rudd's Way (my review here), writes about how Beijing initially misread the China orientation of the Mandarin-speaking leader. Rudd had completed a university thesis on the protest movement in China, had personally compared Taiwan to China and during his time as a diplomat in Beijing had sought out Chinese dissidents:

The important point about this personal experience was that it provided Rudd with a remarkable insight into the complexity, or duality of China...There was a tendency for many Labor sympathisers to assume that Rudd was completely sympathetic to the aims of Beijing. This was not correct.

The previous column posited what became a tacit Rudd era scenario for China's trajectory: 'Many in Canberra have accepted a rough power relativity timetable that is part prediction and part assumption. This holds that, barring a myriad of possible disasters and disjunctions, the direction we're heading produces a China as World Number One by 2020 (PPP) and the same demotion of the US on the exchange rate measures around 2030.'

For Australia, China is delivering on the trend line with the best terms of trade since the middle of the last century. For Rudd, though, geo-economic gold sometimes translated into geostrategic gloom.

His leadership offerings on China were bookended by significant speeches, two years apart, in Beijing and Canberra. The Beijing University speech in April, 2008, four months after taking office, was the opening, hopeful effort to dance with China. The 70th Morrison lecture in Canberra in April, 2010, was delivered two months before Rudd was cut down by caucus, and bore the wounds of experience.

In Beijing, Rudd offered honest criticism in Mandarin and sought to speak as a zhengyou, a true friend who 'offers unflinching advice and counsels restraint' to engage in principled dialogue about matters of contention. Two years later, in Canberra, Rudd offered three dark scenarios: (1) China as threat; (2) China as direct competitor with the US for control of the international system; or (3) China as self-absorbed mercantilist bully. Dark days, indeed.

The Beijing and Canberra speeches and the military issues the Defence White Paper mentioned (but did not confront) were all moments of candour that risked retribution. And China delivered. The diplomatic warfare Beijing waged against Rudd threw up one other notable document: the terms of the ceasefire negotiated in the Australia-China joint statement of October, 2009.

The ceasefire embraced a 'comprehensive relationship', acknowledged 'differences of one type or another' and pledged to 'properly handle differences and sensitive issues in accordance with the principles of mutual respect, non-interference and equality...' This binding of wounds was joined to a statement of geopolitical truth that is obvious yet pregnant with different possibilities: 'The two sides agreed that China and Australia share important common interests in promoting peace, stability and development in the Asia-Pacific region.'

Rudd's Asia Pacific Community/community effort was an attempt to frame his own China questions in regional terms that reached towards the nature of the international system. So was his creation of the Australian Centre on China in the World.

It will be a shame if Rudd's musings on China are remembered solely in terms of a moment of tired anger at the Copenhagen climate change disaster. Surely the Rudd reference to Chinese ratf***rs was a reference to the Year of the Rat in the Chinese horoscope'

Rudd's China experience sets the context for an important new contribution to be published next week: Hugh White’s Quarterly Essay, 'Power Shift: Australia's Future between Washington and Beijing'. The Essay hits the news-stands next week (with an extract in this weekend's Australian) and the next Canberra Column will offer its own account.

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