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Has Kevin Rudd failed us on China?

“To speak Chinese is not to know China,” our man in Beijing announced this week. “Many examples can be found of people who speak Mandarin to a high level but who do not understand how China works. They may have learned their Chinese shut up in their study reading the Analects.”

The press had a field day. To them it appeared our respected outgoing Ambassador, Geoff Raby, was taking a pop at his boss, the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.

Their “strained relationship” was reported with glee, followed by Rudd’s response that Raby was doing a “first class job” as Ambassador and agreeing that Chinese language was only one of many skills needed to understand and deal with China.

When it comes to China, like most complex phenomena, there is more than one way of looking at problems and things are rarely as black and white as depicted in these media flurries.

Reader beware – our mainstream media should warn – spin and snippet does not aid understanding when it comes to one of the major challenges facing Australia now and in the foreseeable future.

That challenge, of course, is how to engage in a mutually beneficial relationship with rising China.

“Treasury warns of China bust” screamed the headlines of a major national broadsheet this week. Yet, the Australian Financial Review told us that the actual response of the new head of Treasury, Martin Parkinson, to a media report that Australia was too dependent on China was “I read it once, then I read it again because I did not understand it, so I read it a third time before I decided that what my instinct suggested, that it was garbage, was right.”

So it is with simplistic analysis of Kevin Rudd and China. Depending on what you read, Rudd is either a shrewd old China hand or the recently rocky Australia-China relationship is down to his supposed arrogance.

China policy is a job for more than one man

I do not claim to be an authority on China. Over eleven years of visiting, if anything, I am more and more aware of what I don’t know about the country.

But I do know about ministers, having spent much of my adult life working for them, and rarely does a successful minister lack self-confidence. This is particularly true of foreign ministers. Arguably our greatest in the modern era, Gareth Evans, was usually pretty sure of himself and with good reason.

I would therefore discount criticism of Kevin Rudd based upon personality alone. Besides, I suspect the Chinese Government is aware that the Australian Government comprises more than one man.

But unfortunately much of the media commentary has rested upon the mythology of “Kevin Rudd The China Expert” and built up unrealistic expectations that he would somehow remake the relationship single-handedly.

So when things began to go sour after a series of incidents during his prime ministership, guess who got the blame?

There were of course issues in the relationship that were much bigger than one man, such as market upheaval, merger and takeover proposals in the iron ore industry. Then there was the Stern Hu case.

Despite all of that, exports continued to boom all through the tense period in the relationship and Chinese investments in Australian resource projects continued to grow.

Not to mention that similar tensions arose for China with bigger economic partners such as the US around blocks to Chinese investment and the so-called currency wars.

Then there was the Rudd Government’s Defence White Paper and perceptions that it focused on a China threat. Yet the single most significant strategic change occurring in the region is of course the rise of China, so you would expect China to appear in scenario planning.

Perhaps the message got mixed, but Australia is a US ally for sound historic reasons and a friend of China for sound economic reasons. It is in our interests to deepen and broaden relationships with both countries and to provide for our defence and security through prudent long term planning.

A lack of nuanced debate about these issues perhaps left them hostage to being simplified in media reports.

Speaking honestly to friends

One issue never far from media attention in relation to China is human rights, a point Australian Governments can’t ignore.

It is instructive to observe how Rudd’s use of his Chinese language skills to raise human rights in this first major speech in China as prime minister fell flat.

Witness the different tack taken by Prime Minister Gillard, who makes no pretence to China expertise but explained in plain English that because of who we are, as Australians, we do have strong views about human rights.

This last strand of the relationship perhaps offers the clue to a way forward, to reduce misunderstandings and to improve the quality of the debate about a country Australia cannot afford to ignore, underestimate or dismiss.

We need the relationship to rest on the shoulders of more than one person. Kevin Rudd cannot be blamed for all the bumps in the road with China but neither can he build the road ahead alone.

A resilient relationship

The Australia China relationship needs a resilience to the inevitable road bumps, built upon a much broader set of relationships at the top level amongst ministers, premiers and other senior Australian leaders, including retired leaders who still have much to offer.

We need a much broader set of relationships, in business, academia and elsewhere, if we are to build future industries for Australia in high value service industries, with well paid jobs for Australians, to benefit from the rise and rise of the Chinese economy.

Most importantly, Australia needs to increase its China literacy if we are to benefit from the rise of China, which was the real point of the remarks made by our Ambassador in Beijing this week to the Australian Institute of Company Directors conference.

It is a pity that Kevin Rudd did not have the opportunity, through his perfect storm of the last years, to help lead a more informed debate about the importance of China to Australia’s future. For that, it is perhaps still not too late.

Published 20 May 2011 – The Conversation (click here for original article)

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