Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 17:32 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Oct 2020 | 17:32 | SYDNEY


Graeme Dobell

26 May 2011 14:24

Grappling with the huge questions posed by China is producing a plethora of responses from the Australian polity. 

Prime Minister Gillard goes to Beijing seeking 'mutual respect' and claiming Australia's right to be 'clear and robust'. The Treasurer talks up the Asia Century being delivered by China while musing on how Australia will have to change to cope. Decoupling from the US economy saw Australia sail through the last decade. Now the polity is pondering how we will steer in the China winds. 

The subject is broad and so are the responses. The range of Kevin Rudd's contributions is notable. His Prime Ministership was marked by a willingness to ponder the dark side of China's rise in key speeches in Beijing and Canberra and the 2009 Defence White Paper.

This was the persona of the self-described 'brutal realist on China', with the Prime Minister privately advising the US to encourage China to become a responsible international player 'while also preparing to deploy force if everything goes wrong'. Foreign Ministers are supposed to be more diplomatic in public and this may be one area where Rudd is trying to conform. (And perhaps Rudd is conscious of the bruises he gained from China's ability to kick as well as kiss.)

Rudd's Sunday speech at Guangdong University on the next stage of the partnership, 'Australia-China 2.0', was an exploration of the glorious possibilities of the next 30 years.

The Foreign Minister even puts a score on his emotions about China: 80% positive and 20% negative: 'My policy on China has been very consistent for a long, long time and that's that the glass is eight parts full and two parts empty'. It is a more precise version of the line he'd used a few days earlier: 'China is the cause of great hope and, for some, deep pessimism. On balance, I am still in the optimist camp'.

If you want some thoughts on the pessimist side of that equation, refer to Rudd 1.0, not Rudd 2.0.

One element of Rudd's Sunday speech was his advice to Australian business about how to tackle China. A key thought was 'employing bilingual Australians who understand business to further enhance the interests of your business'. This would usually be an unexceptional thought from the Mandarin-speaking Minister. Instead, Rudd was crossing lines with Australia's Ambassador to Beijing, Geoff Raby.

Four days earlier, Raby offered his thinking — 'On being China literate' — to Australian company directors:

To speak Chinese is not to know China. Many examples can be found of people who speak Mandarin to a high level but who do not understand how China works. They may have learned their Chinese shut up in their study reading the Analects.

The Fairfax correspondent John Garnaut reported that Raby had 'launched a thinly veiled attack' on his own Minister. Garnaut is one of the best of the print hacks to have covered China in recent times but resorting to 'thinly veiled' is always a thin way into a yarn. It proposes that the person being quoted didn't actually say it, but this is what we think was really meant.

The elegant bit of evidence in support of the veil-piercing was the observation that Rudd studied Chinese at the Australian National University under the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans, who translated the Analects of Confucius. So sitting in the cloisters reading the Analects certainly looks like a shaft with a point. If nothing else, the unusual insight from the Oz representative in Beijing that language skills do not automatically confer understanding rates as a brave bit of counter-intuitive advocacy, given the well-known views of his minister.
As junior diplomats, Rudd and Raby were colleagues in the Beijing. The Old Mates Act, however, does not always carry the day with Rudd. As PM, he vetoed the appointment of another long-time acquaintance as ambassador to Berlin because he didn't speak German. The Rudd line was: 'I do place priority on languages'.

All this suggests Geoff Raby, due to return from Beijing in August, is a man who is happy that he has done most of what he wants to do in the service of Kevin Rudd and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Photo by Flickr user Steve Webel.