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The Mandarin candidate diplomacy

By Graham Cooke - posted Friday, 28 March 2008

China is the big winner from the change in government in Canberra and Japan a major loser, one of the Asia-Pacific’s most seasoned observers, veteran journalist Graeme Dobell, believes.

However, individual issues are not so clear-cut and in some areas, such as negotiations for an Australia-China Free Trade Agreement, a reassessment of its value could be in the offing.

Dobell, the Foreign Affairs and Defence Correspondent for Radio Australia, was giving his assessment of the effect on foreign policy of the first 100 days of the Rudd Labor Government to a meeting of the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He said Japan’s fears about the “Mandarin Candidate” are coming to pass.


“Kevin Rudd’s first major overseas trip as Prime Minister is to the United States to see President George W. Bush, on to Europe to talk about Afghanistan, then to Beijing to talk to leaders and get a sounding on how their Party Congress went. He may get to Japan later in the year, but only if he is invited to the G8 meeting,” Dobell said.

He believes the Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, signed by former Prime Ministers John Howard and Shinzo Abe in March last year, is as far as Rudd is prepared to go. “We will definitely not embark on a full defence pact with Tokyo and the new government has not embraced the Howard language about Japan being our key security partner in Asia after the US,” he said. “It may be a statement of fact, but it is not a fact the Rudd Government wants to acknowledge.

“And Rudd has most definitely turned down Japan’s push to extend the trilateral dialogue of Japan, the US and Australia to include India. In fact the Howard Government had also, very quietly, said no to the quadrilateral approach, but Rudd is saying no very loudly.”

However, if Australia is cosying up to China in some areas of policy, Dobell believes it is giving it some sharp nudges in others. “Trade Minister Simon Crean is questioning whether China is serious about wanting to negotiate a free trade agreement, which is a funny position to take given that the negotiations have been going for three years,” he said.

“One of the interesting things in the relationship is whether Crean ends up deciding that China is not serious and it is not worth making a deal just for the sake of making a deal. The terms of the agreement New Zealand is about to sign with China will be an interesting indicator of whether you can actually do a high-quality deal with China. So far some of the indications appear to be that the answer is ‘no’.”

Other winners included the multilateral system, with the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and other world bodies occupying a more prominent place in Australia’s foreign policy landscape. “We will also be stepping up to sign a range of instruments, from the UN Convention Against Torture to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People,” he said.


The Port Moresby Declaration, signed by Rudd and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare early in March, is a good example of the way relations with the South Pacific will be handled. “Promises of a new era of co-operation; an emphasis on the negotiation of partnerships for development, economic infrastructure, health and education, and Australia and New Zealand putting some weight behind the idea of a high-quality South Pacific Free Trade Agreement,” Dobell said.

“There will be no more screaming matches. Somare is back; thank god [former Solomon Island Prime Minister] Manasseh Sogavare has gone away and we are not even being too firm in the language we use about Fiji.”

In answer to a question, Dobell said the same sort of language being used towards the South Pacific will also apply to Indonesia and South-East Asia generally. “Rudd gains in Indonesia simply because he is not Howard. Howard is associated with East Timor. I would have thought the symbolism of the Prime Minister going to Bali for the UN Conference on Climate Change, but also making sure this was seen as a first visiting to Indonesia, would have gone down quite well.”

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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