Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:18 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:18 | SYDNEY

Rudd Govt getting a dose of the Howard stumbles


Hugh White

3 March 2008 09:43

Communiqués issued after AUSMIN meetings seldom make for gripping reading, but there was something odd and interesting about the one issued last weekend after the Rudd Government’s first AUSMIN. Tucked away under the heading ‘Regional Cooperation’ were a few sentences about the most important set of issues for the US and Australia in Asia over coming years – the changing interrelationships between Asia’s major powers. That alone makes it interesting. What makes it odd is that the language expresses ideas which are inconstant with the Rudd’s Government position on these issues – and indeed are more ‘pro-US’ and ‘anti-China’ than the Howard Government used to be. Here's what it says:

The two countries pledged to continue to work closely with Japan through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD), noting the importance of this and other fora in promoting shared interests on a range of global and regional issues.

Australia and the United States welcomed China's increased engagement in regional and global institutions, and encouraged it to continue to enhance its efforts to address contemporary challenges in a constructive manner. They encouraged China to further build regional confidence in its intentions, including by adopting a transparent approach to its military modernisation.

The United States and Australia recognised that India's stature as a democratic and prosperous country provides a unique opportunity to advance shared political, economic, and security interests in the region. The countries highlighted their wish to work effectively with India to counter terrorism, drug trafficking, and nuclear proliferation. Both countries noted the significance of the U.S.-India Civil-Nuclear Cooperation Initiative.

Let me explain why I think this language is odd, coming from the Rudd Government:

  • On Japan, the prominence given to the TSD puts obvious priority on the strategic relationship between the three countries, which was strongly promoted by Howard in his last year in office and from which the Rudd Government has sought to distance itself because it is seen as directed at China.
  • On China, the language is distinctly negative, especially the criticism of Chinese military modernization in the second sentence. This is standard Pentagon language, but for Australia to sign up to it goes further than I can recall the Howard Government ever went.
  • On India, by contrast, the language glows – ‘democratic’, ‘prosperous’, ‘unique’. Hard to disagree with at one level, though that word ‘unique’ is pungent (Why? Because it is a democracy, I suppose).

Taken together, this set of paragraphs to me presents a view of Asia in which China is a problem and the solution is to work more closely with India and Japan to fix it. Now that is a view that the Rudd Government has clearly repudiated, for example by pointedly saying (in the presence of the Chinese) that we will not take part in further quadrilateral discussions with the US, India and Japan.

So what happened here? The most probable and charitable explanation is that the communiqué was drafted in Washington and that the Australians didn’t read it carefully – though Stephen Smith did recite some of the language about China’s military in the subsequent press conference. That suggests the Rudd Government is still finding its feet in the world of diplomacy, which is a little surprising. It’s still early days, but on issues of such importance it is a bad idea to look like you do not know your own mind. And Beijing will be taking careful note. I hate to say it, but I’m reminded a little of Howard’s first stumbles on China before he got the tone right.