Kevin Rudd: Pro and Anti-China?

Matt Schiavenza blogs about the Aussie expat reaction to John Howard’s election defeat, as well as the incoming prime minister’s Sino-centric language skills:

At The Box, one of Kunming’s popular watering holes, the mood last night was jovial. The Australian general election results came in and Labor scored a decisive victory, booting long-tenured Prime Minister John Howard and his Liberal Party from office. Aussie expats, like their American counterparts, tend to be decidedly left-wing. As a result, many high-fives and celebratory cheers were exchanged. The Americans in attendance wistfully called for a similar result in our own election next year.

Like most people outside of Australasia, I have never paid much attention to Australian politics. Yet John Howard was a distinctly loathsome figure, perhaps the only leader outside of the United States to match President Bush’s belligerent, hawkish rhetoric. Howard was no Tony Blair- a brilliant politician felled by a monumental error in supporting Iraq. Howard was a neocon’s neocon. He marched lockstep with Bush and never questioned the White House’s prosecution of the war. For that, he paid the ultimate political price.


So who becomes the new Australian premier? Kevin Rudd. The Labour Party head campaigned on two central issues: reversing Howard’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and removing Australian troops from Iraq. What interests me about Rudd, though, is his background. In the 1980s, he served in the Australian diplomatic corps in Beijing, acquiring fluent Mandarin in the process. Earlier in the year, Rudd made quite a splash in China by delivering a speech in Mandarin in front of the suitably impressed President Hu Jintao.

A “neocon’s neocon” is a silly pejorative,* but one point is clear: Howard, like Spain’s Jose Aznar, like the Congressional Republicans, and to a lesser extent, Tony Blair, is out of the picture because of the war in Iraq. Most right-wing Australians I know (I suppose Tianjin has more than Kunming) were cool to the Liberal Party — or even opposed to Howard — because of the war and the perceived marriage of interests between Washington and Canberra.

There’s also a systemic factor at work in Howard’s defeat: Australia has mandatory voting laws, so if you moderately disliked (or were just tired of) Howard and you were forced to vote, you might have voted against his party, whereas in America, if you moderately disliked Bush in 2004, you might have sat on your hands instead of voted. In an American-style system Howard might still be in office.

In retrospect, Howard was a successful pol for the most part — nearly 12 years in office hardly constitutes failure. It might also, unlike Matt’s characterization, suggest some degree of political brilliance, especially given the high rate of Australian political participation. But Bush has this magic power to drag down everyone he calls a friend, and John Howard couldn’t escape that curse.

The above having been said, it’ll be interesting to see what Rudd does vis-a-vis China, and it’s always admirable to have a Mandarin-speaking executive. However, there are two points to dampen anyone’s hopes of Sino-Oz unity.

First, save for continuing the longstanding US-Australian-Japan security arrangements, Howard’s relationship with China wasn’t exactly “hostile,” so most friendly shifts towards China by Rudd would be almost imperceptible to most observers.

Second, friendly relations with China may have actually contributed to Howard’s defeat. As the IHT observes,

Much of Australia’s economic boom has been fueled by the windfall profits from China’s rise. Australia supplies much of the coal and iron ore that make China’s explosive growth possible. But the benefits have not been evenly distributed across Australia, accruing mainly to the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland and leaving pockets of deep hardship in the country’s most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria.

So when Howard said this year that “working families have never had it so good,” he alienated many of his supporters and gave Labor a tag line that became a refrain of their successful campaign.

Any policy shifts by incoming Prime Minister Rudd to balance this economic growth — possibly by masking it under the aegis of Midnight Oil-powered environmental protection — would likely be seen as negative in the PRC.

We should remember that when dealing with Beijing, it’s not just military policy but also economic and environmental policy that is interpreted as “anti-China.” In the eyes of many Chinese officials and academics, Bush’s strongest “anti-China” moves, aside from the Hainan spy plane incident, were his use of anti-China trade barriers and pressure to revalue the RMB — moves called for and supported by Democrats more than Republicans. Add to this their natural “ownership” of the human rights issue and the Bush administration’s opponents on the left can be seen as more “anti-China” than the supposed “emperor” himself.

If 2007 and 2008 prove to be good years for the new left in Australia and America, they may also, in the end, signal the worsening of Sino-Western relations — at least so long as the left’s policies match their campaign rhetoric.

* I won’t engage in a tired debate about the meaning of neocon, but, like fascist, it’s one of those terms ridiculously overused as an epithet.


5 thoughts on “Kevin Rudd: Pro and Anti-China?

  1. I guess I was a little too exuberant in my glee at Howard’s defeat, hence the ill-advised words.

    Anyway, how much of Rudd’s China policy is actually known? All I’ve heard is that he was a diplomat here in Beijing and speaks fluent Mandarin. That’s hardly enough to call either way. Still, one would think that his diplomatic and China experience would mean he’s capable of pulling off the environmental stuff without crossing China unnecessarily. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

    But I’m really looking forward to Peter Garrett as environment minister.

  2. Actually, Chris, I understand why some Australians and Kiwis dislike Howard when it comes to his support of Bush. I mean, the worst thing this president’s allies have done is been afraid to say when he’s wrong. Aznar, to his credit, privately criticized Bush’s overconfidence on Iraq, and perhaps the others did the same. Yet publicly, neither Blair nor Howard nor Aznar spoke critically of Bush, even when such criticism could have saved lives.

    As for Rudd’s China policies, I was more riffing on Matt’s post itself, a musing on whether Rudd had a pro-China tilt which seemed to grow out of two things: Rudd being fluent in Mandarin and Rudd pledging stronger international ties. (Which basically means pulling out of Iraq.) However, if he governs like an actual social democrat (rather than Third Way type), he’s likely to butt heads with China as much or more than Howard did, especially since it would be hard for Australians to do their part to implement Kyoto while at the same time helping Chinese to grow their economy at the environment’s expense.

    In the case of Garrett, well, I gotta ask: will his role be dictated by the Labour coalition’s policy program or will he speak his mind freely? (Not that I care much, because I’m an evil right-wing deathbeast.) From recent news stories I’ve read that he’s moved from the hard left of the environmentalist/nuclear disarmament ranks to the mainstream, and earned himself a lot of criticism from the left in the process. What you might end up with is a Joschka Fischer-esque center-left technocrat with far-left street cred.

  3. That’s why I’m looking forward to Garrett as environment minister. Is it going to be the Ministry of Midnight Oil? Or is he really going all respectable? I hope he isn’t going to do a Joschka Fischer, though.

    Well, I suppose I should look more in the Aussie media, but with my parents just arrived, I don’t think I’ll have time. From what I have seen, though, I think it’s far too early to be talking about how Rudd will swing re China.

    As for Howard, I just loathe the swaggering little bastard. Thing is, much as I loathe Bush, I can think of several things he’s done of which I approve: Helping Liberia, diverting Marines to Indonesia after the tsunami, and his stance on immigration are the three that spring to mind. The only good thing I can think of about Howard is that he’s lost his job. Oh, and the Aussie economy has been going well, and leaving many behind, but can the economy be credited to Howard, or is it his stroke of luck that China needs Aussie resources? And as for those in NSW and Vic who are missing out?

    Anyway, I’ll refrain from ranting.

    To get back closer to the topic: Howard slavishly followed Bush everywhere. I take Rudd’s statements as a return to Aussie foreign policy independence. Who knows how this will affect relations with China?

  4. Interesting analysis. I generally agree with you that “neo-con” “fascist” and “socialist” are overused epithets when describing political opponents. But the shoe seems to fit in Howard’s case, given his various public statements about the intellectual case for the war and especially his slander against Obama.

    As far as Kunming’s ratio of foreign backpackers to foreign businessmen, you’re probably right- the coastal cities have far more of the latter. I rarely encounter businessmen types here but that’s mostly because on a student’s budget I can’t really afford to go where they go 🙂

  5. this is a no-brainer. Rudd’s election will mean even more closer ties to the PRC. Practically the entire economy of Oz is riding the back of mining, and guess who is the major purchaser of the Minerals of Oz. No, not Midnight Oil fans, but the PRC, by far of any other nation. There is no way Rudd or the ALP is going to do anything to make that cash cow run dry.

Comments are closed.