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Rudd's approach to China and Stern Hu, a lesson in cowardice

March 21, 2010

Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
The Australian - March 20, 2010

JUST a few days before the Dalai Lama visited Australia last December, Hong
Liang, China's Deputy Ambassador in Canberra, went into the headquarters of
the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra to see a number of
senior officials.

Despite all the rough waters in the Australia-China relationship in recent
months, Liang's visit was a happy one. He was there to thank and praise the
government of Kevin Rudd.

Canberra had communicated to the Chinese a firm commitment from Rudd.
Neither he nor the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, would see the Dalai
Lama during the Tibetan leader's visit to Australia.

Instead, Peter Garrett, the lowly Minister for the Environment and the Arts,
had a more or less secret meeting with the Dalai Lama which was allowed to
leak out only after it happened.

Liang was very pleased with this arrangement and communicated Beijing's
appreciation.

The move marked a change in policy by the Rudd government. During his 2008
visit, the Dalai Lama met with then acting prime minister, Chris Evans, as
well as Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith. Rudd had previously met the Dalai
Lama as opposition leader, in a move which strained his relationship with
the Beijing authorities and led to the derailing of a high-profile visit to
China Rudd was planning - a visit he hoped would reprise Gough Whitlam's
success as Opposition leader in 1971. If President Barack Obama had come to
Australia next week as scheduled, China would have been a key element of his
talks with Rudd.

Obama himself recently saw the Dalai Lama in Washington, DC, as has every US
president since 1990. This was one of many matters which has sent US-China
relations into a similar downward trajectory as Australia-China relations.

However, Obama would have been looking in vain in Canberra if he had been
searching for any formula about how to deal with China.

The small act of appeasement of China by not seeing the Dalai Lama has not
earned the Rudd government any measurable consideration from Beijing.

Indeed the contempt with which Beijing is treating the Rudd government is
evident in the continued process of the Stern Hu trial.

Stern Hu was Rio's second most senior man in China during tense iron ore
price negotiations last year, and when the $20 billion bid for a stake in
Rio by the China government-owned Chinalco was rejected by Rio shareholders
while the Foreign Investment Review Board was taking a very long time to
consider whether the bid passed the national interest test.

Hu was arrested in China last July and faces charges of bribery and
corruption, having originally been accused of espionage.

His trial starts on Monday. Could it be that this trial date was partly
intended to coincide with Obama's visit to Canberra?

More likely is that it was timed to coincide with a visit to China by Rio
boss Tom Albanese, who will speak at the China Development Forum. Rio could
well announce a new joint venture with Chinalco.

The Stern Hu case is being directed from the highest levels in Chinese
politics and there is unlikely to be anything accidental about the timing.

The studied contempt which Beijing is displaying towards Canberra is evident
in the decision that Australian consular officials will be denied full
access to the Hu trial. They will be allowed to witness part of the trial,
but because part of it is deemed to concern confidential commercial
information, this will be held in secret, with no Australian consular
presence.

Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, as well as Smith, said they were "very
disappointed" at this decision. Smith directed Australian officials to ask
for it to be changed.

Rudd himself commented pointedly to the Chinese that "the world will be
watching how this particular court case is conducted."

Beijing reacted with its normal aggression to such Australian impertinence,
with a foreign ministry official in Beijing warning the Australian
government not to politicise the trial.

Official Rudd government statements have emphasised the need for Chinese due
process to be followed.

But this is unrealistic and meaningless. Every serious observer knows that
there is no integrity in the Chinese legal system and that the charges
against Hu are entirely politically driven.

In perhaps the most politically significant, and certainly the most honest,
statement on the issue, Labor MP Michael Danby, the chairman of parliament's
foreign affairs sub-committee, said the detention of Hu will damage China's
political and economic relations with other countries.

"Legal scholars have explained the ways in which the Chinese communist
regime uses the criminal law to repress those who challenge its rule, or who
threaten the business activities of its senior members," Danby said.

"I have no direct knowledge of whether Stern Hu and his colleagues have
broken one or more of the obscure and opaque laws which make doing business
in China so difficult."

Danby then went on to his most important point, which no one else in the
government, nor indeed in the opposition, has had the strength of character
to make: "I do know that his (Hu's) prosecution is essentially political in
nature and that if the Chinese communist authorities decided that it was in
their interests to drop the charges against him, they could and would do so.

"That's why it's important for Australia to continue to make it clear to the
Chinese authorities, through appropriate channels, that prosecuting foreign
business people in this way damages China's political and economic relations
with other countries."

Danby's assessment is surely right, but it is a sad reflection on
Australia's feeble political culture that no one on the front bench of
either major party is willing to join him in stating the obvious.

Governments in Canberra are always scared of annoying Beijing, and have a
well-earned reputation for poltroonery in Washington, Delhi and Tokyo. What
is even more depressing is the political cowardice and moral vacuum of the
Opposition in these matters with Julie Bishop as its spokesperson.

Last year there was a strong move by the Greens and the Independents to
invite the Dalai Lama to visit the Senate as an honoured guest, not to
address the chamber but merely to sit in the seat of honoured guests. The
Government, with the full support of the Liberal Party, vetoed the move.

No Australian Government, or Opposition it seems, is going to die in a ditch
defending human rights in China. Whales, on the other hand, will get full
support from both sides of Australian politics.

The China relationship is likely to get more difficult for Australia as
US-China relations are headed for increased trouble. One reason Rudd didn't
see the Dalai Lama last year was because Obama didn't see him either on the
Dalai Lama's first visit to Washington after Obama's inauguration.

This was during the period when Obama was doing everything he could to
sweeten up Beijing - such as getting Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to
omit pesky references to human rights during her first visit to China.

If Obama wasn't going to see the Dalai Lama, Rudd certainly wasn't going to
either, showing that it's not just the parties of the centre right in
Australia who are determined always to walk in lock step with the Americans.

But Obama saw the Dalai Lama on the next visit of the Tibetan spiritual
leader to Washington. It's clear now that Obama's sobering education about
the world embraces a new and more robust attitude to Beijing. All of Obama's
soft soap - soft power, personal charisma, new beginning etc - yielded him
nothing in terms of co-operation from Beijing on imposing sanctions on Iran
to stop it from manufacturing nuclear weapons, or on climate change.

US Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, in testimony to Congress a
fortnight ago, listed some of Washington's conflicts with Beijing: "We have
differences over issues such as human rights, intellectual property rights
and the transparency of China's military modernisation programs. Most
recently, Beijing has voiced concerns about the (Obama) administration's
decision to pursue the sale of defensive arms to Taiwan . . . and about
President Obama's and Secretary Clinton's recent meetings with the Dalai
Lama."

It seems there is a good chance Google will quit China over issues of
censorship of the internet, the first western company to do so on the basis
of political ethics.

Similarly, Obama has been much more truculent in his recent demands for
China to end the artificially depressed level of its currency. The US
Treasury is under congressional pressure to formally declare China a
"currency manipulator" which would allow a range of retaliatory measures by
Washington.

In all this Australia is an important though not key interlocutor for the
Obama administration. Obama visited 21 countries in his first year in
office. We don't rank among the top 21. And with the earlier cancellation of
the AUSMIN visit by Clinton and Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, Australia
looks like it has become a very cancellable destination for senior
Americans.

If Obama does finally come to Australia in June, China will still be the
number one topic of discussion between him and Rudd. It seems that Obama
conceives his chief foreign tasks as creating a new relationship for the US
with Islam, and managing China.

But here is one simple way for the American president to gauge whether Rudd
has the slightest influence with the Chinese. If Stern Hu is still in jail,
then it will be clear that Australia's influence in Beijing is as close to
zero as you could possibly imagine.
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