Kevin Rudd's Asia Hypocrisy

Article excerpt

Contrast and compare the grandstanding of the Rudd government over Japanese whaling to its relative quiescence on the human rights crackdown in Tibet.

Consider it from the viewpoint of Tokyo, and you begin to understand why there might be rising anxiety, if not anger, about the emerging priorities of Australian foreign policy in Asia under Kevin Rudd.

In one case, you have the raucous campaigning against Japan by Environment Minister Peter Garrett, the dispatching of a customs vessel to the Southern Ocean to monitor the activities of Japanese shipping, the much-trumpeted dissemination by Garrett of (disputed) footage suggesting the slaughter of a mother whale and her calf, and the threat by Australia to bring its key ally in East Asia before the international courts.

Measure that against the softly-softly statements of Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephen Smith, in his response to reports that more than 100 Tibetan protesters had been shot or beaten to death by paramilitary police sent in to quell demonstrations in Lhasa. If you listened hard enough, you might have heard calls on Chinese authorities to exercise 'restraint', and a respectful plea for Beijing to allow greater latitude for political dissent.

On March 17, Kevin Rudd finally broke his silence: "These are significant developments, and therefore have been the subject of communications diplomatically between our two governments. I imagine those communications will continue.' He might just as well have stayed mute.

But the problem here was not so much that the Rudd government was being circumspect about unproven claims of atrocities against the Chinese security forces. The problem here was a truly dreadful juxtaposition.

For if symbolism counts for anything in international politics (and Rudd has demonstrated, through the theatrics of his ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in Bali, that he believes it counts for plenty) what are we to make of the symbolism that sees the new Australian government adopt the most macho of megaphone diplomacy when it comes to expressing moral outrage over Japanese whaling while confining itself to the meekest of mouse-like protests when it comes to troops and tanks rolling into Lhasa?

This yawning disparity in the Rudd government's approach to the two major powers in East Asia has not been a good look, serving only to compound the worst fears in Tokyo about Rudd's decision to include China, but exclude Japan, as a destination for his first major overseas trip as Prime Minister.

For this reason, Kevin Rudd deserved to be under greater than usual scrutiny as he set off on his visits to Europe, the US and China. Every nuance of his every word and gesture on this trip would be studied intensely, in Tokyo and beyond, for what it said about how the new Australian government was recalibrating its strategic approach not just to the region, but to the world.

In Europe and Washington, NATO chiefs and the Bush administration would be taking careful measure of where exactly Rudd stood on his commitment to the challenges of Afghanistan and Iraq. These are momentous issues of global security and stability, involving life-or-death choices. It is not a debate conducive to the slick soundbites and pantomime heroics Rudd put on show in BaIi in December, where he was all but canonised by a misty-eyed media and the cheerleaders of the global NGOs.

This time around, Labor's foreign policy credentials were to be exposed, for the first time, to a searching and rigorous road test.

For all his efforts to elevate climate change to the 'great moral challenge' of our time, the struggle to secure and stabilise Afghanistan was always going to be front-and-centre of Rudd's trip to Europe. There are tensions and divisions within the NATO alliance over who is, and who is not, pulling their weight.

As ever, the expectation internationally is that it falls to the Americans to do most of the heavy lifting. …