Reading through Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent speech at the Australian National University it is hard not to be impressed once again by his knowledge of China.
Furthermore, there is much to be commended in the Prime Minister’s “New Sinology”, with its promises of a “deeper, textured understanding of the China of the 21st century” and a pragmatic, considered approach to our evolving relationship. There were indeed many echoes of his landmark speech at Peking University two years ago, including another appeal to the concept of Zhengyou - “a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship” - this time to lay out the mission of ANU’s new Australian Centre on China and the World.
What is astonishing however is Rudd’s ability to give a speech of nearly 7,000 words on “Australia, China in the World” without mentioning Tibet, a subject never far from the minds of ANU’s many eminent sinologists and which, today, Beijing itself regards as a “core issue” in both its domestic politics and international relations.
To be fair, this was a broad-based speech designed to set the tone and agenda of our future engagement with China, not an occasion to be getting bogged in specifics. Nonetheless, from pointing out China’s continued association with renegade regimes from the Sudan to Burma, to its lack of co-operation on global security challenges including Afghanistan and Iran, to its dubious contribution to last year’s critical UN Climate Summit, for the most part the PM balanced his due positive reflections on re-emergent China with appropriate reminders of how far things still have to go.
In short, the lack of any mention of Tibet was striking and no doubt deliberate.
Why is this so? Sadly it is not due to any significant improvements in the ground realities facing the six million Tibetans since the PM’s last major speech on China. Nor is it down to an extraordinary effort by the Chinese Government through its well-oiled propaganda machine and armies of diplomats and “Tibetologists” to reframe international perceptions of Tibet, though this has no doubt played a part.
Talk to officials at DFAT and it is clear that the Australian Government remains acutely aware of the enduring problems in Tibet. Talk to the handful of parliamentarians with more than a passing interest in foreign affairs and almost all, irrespective of their political persuasion, share this concern. And while many have reluctantly come to believe that Australia, indeed the international community more generally, is powerless to bring improvements for Tibetans, others have become positively exasperated at the government’s reluctance to say more.
In public the Prime Minister has reassured us that the government will not let its growing economic relationship with China prevent it from raising concerns over Tibet and other contentious issues.
Look closely and the picture is a little different. While Australia may have given China the odd prod through such things as the annual confidential Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue and the UN Human Rights Council, publicly the government has been almost silent on Tibet since mid 2008 - a period which has seen the collapse of the Tibet-China dialogue and ever more severe curbs on Tibetans’ freedoms of speech, religion, association and movement.
In answering a question from Hon Peter Slipper MP last October as to whether China had placed non-interference on Tibet as a condition for co-operation on other issues, the Foreign Minister replied that “China’s view, as put to Australia, is that both countries should respect and accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns so as to safeguard the overall interests of bilateral co-operation. The Tibet issue is one such concern for China.” Read: “If you want to maximise our shared economic interests then you’re going to have to keep quiet over Tibet.”
Two months later and shortly before President Barack Obama received the Dalai Lama in the White House, the Rudd Government relegated its reception of the Dalai Lama to a hushed meeting with Environment Minister Peter Garrett in a back room of Melbourne Airport.
Reading last Friday’s speech more closely there are more than a few statements designed to allay any lingering fears following Rudd’s mentioning of the “T” word in Beijing two years ago. “We appreciate fully the core interests of the People’s Republic of China,” said Mr. Rudd, adding “in particular with regard to its territorial integrity”.
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