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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

A steady China hand

April 6, 2009

The Australian
April 6, 2009

THE emerging paradox behind Kevin Rudd's
outwardly confident handling of his ambitious
foreign policy agenda is the unsteady hand he is
showing in the one area where we thought he might
have most expertise: China. From his clumsy
attempt to keep a meeting with China's propaganda
chief private to his discomfort at being seated
next to his old friend Fu Ying, China's
ambassador to London, on a British television
show last week, Mr Rudd is showing an awkward
self-conciousness that at times verges on shifty.

All this is in sharp contrast to his first visit
to China as Prime Minister a year ago when he
delivered an impressive speech at Beijing
University that won him new respect in China and
at home. He rightly remarked then that it is
necessary to recognise there are significant
human rights problems in Tibet, while laying
claim to being a zhengyou, a true friend, of
China - who has the capacity, indeed the duty, to
speak plainly and honestly when needed.

Since then, however, Mr Rudd has lost his
surefootedness. He seems anxious about being seen
as the Manchurian candidate, a figure so immersed
in China that he represents it rather than Australia. This is an odd anxiety.

When Australian voters have had the opportunity
to choose between sensible engagement with China
or fending it off, they have chosen the former.
And when Mr Rudd famously chatted in Chinese with
President Hu Jintao during the APEC summit in
Sydney a few weeks before the last election,
Australians applauded rather than winced. Mr Rudd
was right to champion a stronger role for China
in the global architecture via the Group of 20,
just as Australia had earlier helped pull China
into the World Trade Organisation in 2001. But
where does he see the Australia-China
relationship heading? We do not really know.

Even though Mr Rudd claimed during his visit to
Beijing a year ago to have unfrozen the free
trade agreement talks, they still appear chilly.
In comparison, Barack Obama and Mr Hu agreed in
the sidelines of the G20 summit, a great new
structure of top-level engagement, without even touching on an FTA.

What about Australia? Labor has previously
revelled in being China-savvy. But the mess over
Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon's relationship
with businesswoman Helen Liu, and the uncertainty
over Chinese investment in Australia are
undermining confidence in this Government's
capacity to lead us into what should be a highly
beneficial, complementary relationship for both
countries. Treasurer Wayne Swan is silenced by
convention during investment applications. These
are so frequent from China, and so important, he
has been sidelined from the debate. Trade
Minister Simon Crean has done his bit. Foreign
Minister Stephen Smith is effectively reduced to
a subsidiary status. Over to you, Prime Minister.

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