S.P. Seth, Sydney
If Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was banking on his specialist understanding of China as a Mandarin speaker to forge a new relationship with Beijing, it has obviously not worked so far.
His government initially sought to ingratiate with Beijing by snubbing Japan and India. Tokyo was not amused when it was left out of Rudd's recent major foreign trip to the United States, Europe and China.
The Rudd government also dumped the quadrilateral security dialogue to include the United States, Japan, India and Australia. Even worse, this was done at a joint press conference with the visiting Chinese foreign minister.
As Beijing was dead set against this viewing it as part of a containment policy, this decision seemed to give China a role in the formulation of Australia's foreign policy, at least when it concerned China. And not surprisingly, it wasn't regarded well by other dialogue partners.
India was also left out of the loop on the question of uranium supplies. The Howard government was favorably disposed on this issue as part of an emerging U.S.-India strategic nexus.
Beijing couldn't have asked for more from the new Australian government, confirming the widely held view that Kevin Rudd was biased towards China.
Apparently, Rudd believed that having proved his China credentials early on, he would now have some friendly license to express his honest views on China's human rights problem during the Tibetan unrest. And he did it quite frankly during his China visit, advising Beijing to hold dialogue with the Dalai Lama and his representatives on the question.
This was all happening in the midst of the Olympic torch relay when protests were staged in London, Paris and elsewhere against China's repression in Tibet. The protesters were also targeting the Chinese paramilitary security presence surrounding the torch.
At the time Prime Minister Rudd declared that the security of the Olympic torch relay would be handled only by the Australian police during its passing through Canberra. This apparently added to Beijing's displeasure, and it showed this by seeking to ignore Rudd's directive, thus creating a murky situation.
In other words, Prime Minister Rudd's special relationship with China looked like unraveling even before it got going.
At another level, Beijing was hoping it might get a sympathetic treatment from the new Rudd government on the pricing of resource materials (like iron ore) China is importing from Australia. In the last few years, prices of resource materials have soared because of growing demand, much of it from China.
One way of putting some control over the price is for China to have an equity stake in Australian corporations engaged in mining and exporting these materials. Beijing is now aggressively pushing to acquire such stake and control. But it is meeting some resistance, which it regards as discriminatory.
Writing in The Australian, Jennifer Hewett, its national affairs correspondent, has commented that, "The Rudd government is becoming extremely concerned about the prospect of ever-increasing Chinese investment in Australian resources companies."
It can't just be a sheer coincidence that an Australian operated gold mining company in China has, at about the same time, come under severe criticism on Chinese television and other media outlets for acquiring the company for almost nothing and for causing environmental degradation and other vile practices.
John Garnaut, Sydney Morning Herald's Beijing correspondent, reported in his paper on May 12 that, "The 30-minute tirade, which advocated even tougher restrictions on foreign investment in Chinese mines, was broadcast nationally twice last week and the transcript reprinted on more than 500 Chinese internet news and blog sites."
As it happens, there is a convergence of sorts between China's resentment over Prime Minister Rudd's criticism over Tibet, and the economics and politics of Australia's mining, investment and export of resource materials.
As columnist Ian Verrender has put it in the Sydney Morning Herald, "Soon after delivering his message in Mandarin to Beijing (during Rudd's China visit] about human rights concerns [in Tibet), he was confronted with accusations that Australia treated Chinese investment differently than money from other nations."
With its economic success and political power, China is in the midst of a national upsurge. It believes that the timing of the Tibetan unrest, to coincide with the Olympic torch relay, is a conspiracy against its coming of age as a great/super power, with the August Olympics as a spectacular backdrop.
And Australia's joining of the criticism of its human rights in Tibet has dented Rudd's credentials as China's friend.
In its courting of Beijing, the Rudd government sought to substitute China for the whole of Asia. Among the three pillars of Australia's foreign policy under his government (as spelled out in a signed article not long before Rudd became Prime Minister), while the first two would focus on "our alliance with the United States [and], our membership of the United Nations", the third pillar would comprise "a policy of comprehensive engagement with the Asia-Pacific region."
But so far, the engagement with Asia-Pacific would seem to suggest mainly China. Japan and India aside, having been given short shrift, Southeast Asia seems to have escaped notice of the Rudd government.
Critiquing then Prime Minister John Howard's Asia policy in his signed article, Rudd wrote, "In our own region, Australia has increasingly the look and feel of an outsider...(because) Mr Howard has emphasized Australia's differences from, rather than commonalities with, the region."
And Rudd promised that under his Labor Party government, Australia "will revert to a long tradition of engagement with the region..." with a view to "find Australia's security in Asia, not from it..."
With such scant notice taken so far of Southeast Asia, it is not surprising that Indonesia, the largest ASEAN country, has felt left out. Even more so because Indonesia has been routinely featured as Australia's important, if not the most important, neighbor.
The problem, though, is that even when Indonesia is recognized as Australia's important neighbor, Canberra doesn't really know how to give it a concrete shape in bilateral relations, other than the security aspect of it in some form or the other. And since the relationship has always lacked depth, it tends to languish. At the moment, though, it is in slumber.
The Rudd government was expected to energize the entire gamut of Australia's foreign relations with ASEAN countries. But the early signs do not look promising.
With his anticipated close relationship with Beijing, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was hoping to become an interlocutor between China and the West. By virtue of that Australia would also gain a new respect in Asia, being China's buddy.
But it doesn't seem to be working like that. The Rudd government may need to rework its Asia policy by recognizing its different components and dealing with them in their own right rather than expecting them to fit in as part of Canberra's grand plan.
It is early days yet with the Rudd government having been in power for only some months. It might yet surprise us with a more broad-based Asia policy as it gets going.
The writer is a freelance writer based in Sydney and can be reached at SushilPSeth@aol.com