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Why Rudd Has Overstayed His Welcome in Asia

John Lee

“Like Kings we lose the Conquests gained before;
By vain Ambition, still to make them more…
Such labored nothings, in so strange a style,
Amaze the unlearned, and make the learned smile.”
An Essay on Criticism – Alexander Pope

Back in 1996, many ‘Asia-experts’ responded to John Howard’s election as prime minister with skepticism that a leader with no extensive foreign policy experience or notable interest in Asia could advance his personal reputation and Australia’s role in the region. Yet, by the time he left office in 2007, Howard was respected and liked by the vast majority of Asian leaders. Canberra’s relationship with key capitals in Tokyo, New Delhi, Singapore and Jakarta were warm, assured and robust while its relationship with Beijing was not just polite but constructive.

In contrast, having positioning himself as Australia’s intellectual, Mandarin-speaking statesman-in-waiting while in Opposition, experts expected that Kevin Rudd would usher in an enhanced era of Asian engagement. Rudd had seduced informed Australian audiences with his plans to ramp up Australia’s ‘middle power’ activism and creativity in Asia. He offered the criticism that regional policy under Howard had been overly deferential to American interests and his predecessor simply ‘did not get Asia’. Yet, under Rudd’s leadership, Canberra has managed to enrage Beijing, irritate New Delhi, antagonize Singapore and annoy Tokyo and Jakarta.

This is no mean feat. In the competitive world of international relations, strategists and diplomats accept the reality of opportunity costs: moving closer to one state can mean strained ties with another. But as one bilateral relationship weakens, there is the presumed upside that another is strengthened. Therefore, if nothing else, to oversee a deterioration of Australia’s standing with all these key capitals is a rare achievement for the Rudd government.

Like other states in Asia, John Howard adopted a pragmatic policy consisting of economic engagement with China coupled with deepening strategic cooperation with Asian states such as Japan, India, Singapore, Indonesia, in addition to the US. Although China’s rise is accepted as a legitimate one, and its economy is indispensable to regional and global growth, Beijing is distrusted by every other major Asian capital. Indeed, China has land or maritime based disputes with India, Japan and most of Southeast Asia. Other Asian states are also rightly concerned that authoritarian China will only be superficially committed to the current open and liberal order should Beijing gain regional ascendency.

In response, the collective strategy in place since the early 1990s to manage China’s rise has been to deepen military relationships with Washington and each other. True, a weak regional multilateralism remains useful in enforcing pre-agreed norms of behaviour. But the de facto ‘strategic encirclement’ of China through security bilateral relationships has been enormously effective in restraining Beijing’s actions if not ambitions and offering smaller states a reassuring hedging strategy vis-à-vis China.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

John Howard exceeded the expectations of Asia experts. In contrast, the embarrassing irony for Prime Minister Rudd is that what he seemingly knows best—China—is starting to look like what he might know least when it comes to responding to China’s rise in Asia.

Rudd’s persistent advocacy of an Asia Pacific Community (APC) to discuss the full spectrum of forward-looking security matters that affect the region—code for China’s rise—has received a poor reception in the region. It annoyed states like Singapore and Indonesia because the APC is implicitly designed to replace existing institutions like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—scorned by Rudd but essential for smaller Southeast Asian states to exercise collective leverage in dealing with China. Singapore is particularly peeved given that it was Singaporean (and Japanese) support that played an important role in Australia being offered membership in the East Asian Summit despite China wanting Australia excluded.

The APC idea also misread or ignored the regional strategic zeitgeist. Most states—large and small—want to avoid the formal discussion of top-level security matters (eg., great power tensions or an increased role for the Chinese navy) in any all-inclusive multilateral security forum for fear of having to explicitly ‘rebuff’ Beijing. Furthermore, the unspoken preference of most Asian states is to resist offering China a forum for a more equal say in security matters, especially regarding matters in the South China Sea, until China is truly enmeshed and committed to regional rules and norms. This is not yet sufficiently the case and Rudd’s APC would have diluted existing leverage over China without Beijing offering any meaningful commitments in return.

Bear in mind that the folly of the APC idea has been pushed onto the region at a time when Rudd was prioritising the ‘courting’ of China over continuing the deepening of relations with Japan and India that occurred during the Howard era. This was the misplaced ambition of a prime minister who believed that a leader from a democratic nation of 22 million people could manage, tame, persuade and charm the leaders of an authoritarian nation of 1.3 billion without eventual disadvantage.

Yet, in return for spurning our two largest security regional partners and annoying our Southeast Asian partners in the processes, Australia-China relations sunk to their lowest levels since the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis. Initially allowed the misapprehension that Australia was being ‘neutralised’ or even moving closer to its sphere of political and strategic influence, a vengeful and betrayed Beijing subsequently spent the second half of 2009 lashing out at Australia –the Stern Hu and Rebiya Kadeer visa controversies, as well as Chinese state-backed media calling Australian politicians ‘Sinophobic’ coming to mind.

The dangers of ‘laboured nothings’

The important and well-informed applauded the arrival of a prime minister with a genuine interest in international affairs and an intimate knowledge of China. In one sense, Rudd has delivered what he promised: he is one of the more tireless, imaginative, assertive and proactive heads-of-government in the region. But despite his intellect, energy and ambition, his current record in Asia is blighted by what the eighteenth century poet and satirist Alexander Pope calls ‘laboured nothings’. At worst, Rudd has wound back some of the progress made in Australia’s relationships with key states achieved during the Howard era. Remember that the whole point of ‘creative middle power’ activism is to win new friends and influence powerful players, rather than to annoy or enrage existing ones respectively.

There is the common criticism that Rudd makes foreign policy ‘on the run’. For example, his special APC envoy, Richard Woolcott, was reportedly offered the post only two hours before it was first announced. But the problem lies deeper than style or too much haste. Genuine statesmanship depends on a clear-sighted appreciation of ‘interest’, ‘capabilities’ (including limitations), and accepting the realities of the strategic environment and the nature of its key players. Less useful is reliance on the flurry of activity or poorly thought-out articulation of ‘big ideas’ about policy and process.

The damage is far from irreparable but the vanity of lone ambition ought to be put aside. For it will require the courting—rather than slighting—of friends with like-minded interests in the region to correct it.

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