Refreshingly, Julia Gillard chalked up a major foreign policy success this week in China. She has put Australia-China relations back on the positive track trailblazed by Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke many years ago.
Hawke's respected presence on her delegation emphasised this historic continuity: a point she made several times in her important Boao Forum Speech on 7 April at the start of her visit
She did not mention human rights in the speech. Nor did she mention Kevin Rudd. It is a paradox that Rudd — who certainly knows far more about China than Whitlam, Hawke or Gillard do — did not realise his opportunities as PM to enrich the relationship. We can see in retrospect that he deeply irritated China by lecturing them on human rights and by his needlessly provocative language on US-China strategic competition in Asia.
The Rudd years, like the Howard years, were years of stasis, even regression, in Australia-China relations. We aimed high — and sometimes convinced ourselves we were doing well — but Australia never actually managed to get the delicate economic relations/strategic /human rights mix right.
It was not for want of trying on the part of many knowledgeable Australian officials and former officials with expertise in China — people like Stephen Fitzgerald, Ross Garnaut, Richard Rigby and Hugh White. The difference now is — the Australian PM was this week acting on good advice.
In her Boao speech, Gillard made this crucial observation — couched in general language not naming any country, but the meaning would have been as clear in Washington as in Beijing:
We must also understand that continued and strengthened economic growth will keep changing the strategic order of our region. Militaries are modernising. Economic growth will put more pressure on energy, water and food resources. This does not make major power conflict inevitable — all countries in the region share a deep interest in strategic stability — but the consequences of conflict are ever more severe for us all.
With the beginning of the end of our mineral resources export boom and with Australia no longer able to take for granted our biggest market, China; and with domestically contentious issues of Chinese investment in Australian resources like Cubbie Station, coal-gas fracking, uranium mines or strategic telecommunications industries complicating Australia's day-to-day working relations with China, there was a clear need for a new framework of regular scheduled contacts at the highest level, to provide political lubrication and manage disputes before they sour further. Gillard, to her credit, grasped this nettle.
Boao marked the key change Hugh White has been advocating for years. Australia needed to put down a strong public marker that we acknowledge that the US-China strategic balance is changing, and that we must — without betraying our loyalty to our ANZUS Treaty relationship — accept this changed reality in our relations with China.
With the respect for China Gillard spelled out in the Boao Forum on Sunday came Australia's reward yesterday: the new high-level diplomatic architecture rather misleadingly termed a 'strategic partnership'. This is not a strategic partnership in the sense of a strategic alliance: ANZUS is still pre-eminent in that sense, and will remain so.
But it is a significant mark of mutual respect nonetheless. The partnership puts China onto the same highest level of regular political dialogue Australia has had with Indonesia and India, and it puts Australia onto the same highest level of political dialogue China has had with the USA, Russia, Germany, Britain and the European Union.
This is an immense plus for Australia. Such regular top-level political dialogue gives the imprimatur for a host of useful bilateral dealings: in trade, investment, currency dealings, environmental policy including carbon trading, educational exchanges, technology transfer, copyright etc. It means we deal as friends across a range of issues.
The presence of the most senior Australian business leaders' delegation ever to accompany an Australian prime minister to China gave substance to these unfolding possibilities. The tide is now set fair for enrichment of bilateral relations in many spheres, to our two countries' mutual benefit.
The Australia-China relationship is back on the rails again. There is nothing here the Federal Opposition could object to, nor should it try. Gillard got the balance right. Possibly, after September, Tony Abbott will inherit these gains. Meanwhile, he should graciously applaud them. This is a time for foreign policy bipartisanship.
Tony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland.