Monday 11 Oct 2021 | 10:32 | SYDNEY
Monday 11 Oct 2021 | 10:32 | SYDNEY

PM in Asia: The meeting is the message


Graeme Dobell

27 April 2011 11:05

In a careful but considered way, Julia Gillard's travels are an expression of foreign policy priorities.

See the symbolism in visits to the US last month and now to Asia.

The hierarchy of choices expressed by the trips may offer as much substance as all the speeches and press conferences combined. And that's not just because so many of the words are straight out of the briefing book. 

In diplomacy, the meeting can be the message, just as the leader's choice of foreign destination is an effort to express vision via visit.

Where leaders go still matters, even though in the jet age the bilateral summit has become common currency, serving commerce as much as traditional diplomacy, with lots of TV hokum thrown in for the folks back home.

The magisterial Mead expresses the circus side-show aspect of it all with dripping disdain:

Visits of heads of state are particularly fertile terrain for the political equivalent of cotton candy: brightly-dyed insignificance spun out to occupy the largest possible space with the smallest conceivable amount of real matter. Spurious "breakthroughs", vacuous discussions of "chemistry", "strategic partnerships": the Preacher said it best in Ecclesiastes.  It is striving after wind and a weariness of the flesh.

Yet even Mead concedes that some summits really do change the course of events. And in Asia, where so much is still to be said, much less agreed, a constant round of visits and summits must be counted A Good Thing. Even the summits that don't amount to much still add something to a vital regional conversation.

The usual carping — Where's the substance, the agreement or breakthrough? — misses much that is being said implicitly as well as expressly. Sometimes the mere order of the meetings matters.

The sequence of Gillard's travels conveys some messages. First, she went to the US. Then the Asia tour started in Japan, progressed to South Korea, with China the last Asian stop. 

For the purposes of this discussion, the PM flying on from China to a royal wedding in London is a jump to a completely different part of the history-and-symbolism forest.

China will not kid itself that the Gillard sequence — Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing — is a set of steps in ascending order. 

The visit game in Asia has always mattered; the gathering might of China has merely upped the stakes while complicating the choices. 

Going to China first in the initial visit to Asia was judged as poor message management by President Bill Clinton and by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Japan was mightily miffed and China chuffed. The sequence was seen to count.

In response, the George W Bush administration made a fetish out of calling on Japan first. As US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton followed the Bush method of Asian itinerary selection on her initial trip, not that of her husband.

Gillard avoided the China-first example of Rudd by touching down in Tokyo and Seoul. And the PM spent four days in Japan compared to two in Beijing.

China is, of course, still the big money visit where the hard questions are posed. This is the behemoth that has rocketed from being Australia's fifth largest trading partner to top spot and helped recession-proofed Oz when the rest of the developed world crashed into crisis.

Gillard is in Beijing as an important partner, not supplicant. And the previous progress through Washington, Tokyo and Seoul underlines Australia's other partnerships.

One other bit of symbolism is worth noting: the visit to Asia by Australia's first female leader. 

Less than one year into the Age of Julia, Oz has moved way past the 'first fem' flag. The discussion is all about whether Gillard is any good as a political leader. (Note also, that the Kiwis had two female PMs before we even got there.)

But in Asia, Gillard conveys some important messages about what is possible in Australia. In Tokyo as much as in Beijing, women will have to wait a long time before they see a similar milestone.

The possibilities and the positives of Australian society are on show when the unmarried woman who runs Oz, with The First Bloke in tow, can visit the Emperor and Empress of Japan.

Photo by Flickr user 111Emergency.