Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:58 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:58 | SYDNEY

Kevin Rudd Asia Pacific legacy (so far)


Malcolm Cook

20 March 2012 15:42

Ed. note: This post follows on from Fergus Hanson's assessment of Rudd's China legacy.

'Good principles, mixed execution' summarises Kevin Rudd's approach to the Asia Pacific region, and Australia's place within it, during his tenure as prime minister and then foreign minister. 'So far' has been added to the headline, as political leaders can have more than one stint at the top, even when they have been removed by their own.

Five sound principles were prominent in Rudd's approach to the Asia Pacific. All of these featured in the Howard Government's approach also:

  1. The Asia Pacific and not Asia was the proper region to situate Australia. 
  2. The People's Republic of China is and will be the leading regional power in Asia.
  3. Managing the tensions of the 'rise of China' within the existing US-led Asia Pacific security order is the great strategic challenge.
  4. Major Asian states, including India, deserve a larger global voice and the health of global institutions depends on this being achieved.
  5. Non-major powers like Australia need to work hard to ensure their interests are taken into consideration in any changes to the regional order.

As noted early on by Rowan Callick, the execution of these principles, in terms of stronger bilateral relations with key Asia Pacific powers and acceptance of Australia's regional policy initiatives, was mixed.

The Asia Pacific C(c)ommunity initiative triggered an ASEAN backlash due to a lack of prior consultation and ASEAN sensitivity about any possible challenge to its centrality. It would have been more effective and efficient to have continued lobbying for the US to join the East Asia Summit, a process that preceded Rudd's prime ministership and one that delivered.

As Prime Minister, Rudd failed the uranium-sales litmus test for India, while Gillard was able to pass it. Rudd chose not to take on the ALP in the interest of closer relations with India. Gillard chose to, with the support of Foreign Minister Rudd.

As with ASEAN, Prime Minister Rudd also poked Japanese sensitivities by needlessly dropping the boilerplate phrase that Japan was Australia's most important partner in Asia, by visiting China first and by letting the domestic politics of whaling take a much larger role in the bilateral relationship than before.

The soundness of Rudd's general approach to the Asia Pacific and its resonance with long-standing Australian foreign policy approaches means that, overall, the legacy is positive. But it does show that careful execution and consideration for the concerns and sensitivities of larger powers with similar interests to you is good diplomacy and good strategy.