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Injecting New Dynamism in US-Australia Ties

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • April 01, 2009

    Labour Party Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, has been in office for nearly one and a half years after his unexpected victory over John Howard in late 2007. For almost three decades after World War II, Australia systematically repudiated the idea of being identified as an Asian country, until the resource boom in the early 1970s that catapulted Australia as one of the major resource exporters to resource-importing countries such as Japan and now China. Since then, Australia’s external orientation has undergone a profound change. Though various political parties have remained at the helm at different periods, the fundamental approach to foreign and foreign economic policies has remained unchanged.

    How is Rudd different from his predecessors? Rudd has brought a unique style of governance by either floating new ideas and concepts or re-looking at Australia’s priorities in foreign relations. Not long after he came to office, he floated a new concept for evolving a new kind of security architecture for the Asia-Pacific without spelling out clearly its purpose, aims, structure and objectives. He even sent his marketing manager, Richard Woolcott, the man who mid-wifed the birth of APEC in 1989, to sound out member countries of the region envisaged to be members in Rudd’s proposed architecture. The vagueness of the idea might render it to remain buried for ever and can only be resurrected in the unlikely event of changes of attitude and policies in many of the Asia-Pacific countries in the future.

    Rudd is known for his soft attitude towards China. After assuming office, he made his first major overseas visit to China, much to the annoyance of the Japanese, who felt that their bilateral relationship was undermined by Rudd’s preference for China. A Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, Rudd made his open preference for China over Japan known when he, during his meeting with President Barack Obama on March 23, 2009, said that the US and Australia should work together to integrate China into global governance and called the Asian power a “huge opportunity”. He also said that China should feel it has a stake in world politics, most notably the International Monetary Fund where its voting power is now minimal. Rudd was probably exploiting the Obama administration’s vow to pursue common goals with China such as reviving the global economy despite longstanding concerns on human rights and other issues. Rudd seems not worried about China’s pursuit of sophisticated weaponry, which is altering Asia’s military balance.

    While Australia and the United States are longstanding allies, Rudd had a visibly uneasy relationship with former President George W. Bush. However, Rudd 51, and Obama, 47, both come from humble backgrounds and lived for years overseas. Politically, each changed his country’s course upon taking office by ordering troops out of Iraq and vowing action on climate change. According to Alan Dupont, Director of the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, both are “ideological soul mates” and that both will be able to “connect intellectually”. Indeed, two months into office, Obama has extended only select invitations to foreign leaders to come and see him in Washington. Before Rudd, Obama has met at the White House only with the leaders of Japan, Britain, Brazil and Ireland, along with China’s foreign minister and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Obama also flew to Canada to see Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

    On his part, Rudd has made efforts to cushion the economy against the global credit crisis to bolster Australia’s financial system. While praising Obama’s plan to finance as much as $1 trillion in purchases of illiquid real-estate assets, besides the plan to establish a fund to lend directly to companies should foreign banks fail to roll over as much as $75 billion of maturing debt, Rudd said that these would not work unless it is globally coordinated. Rudd also rejected the idea of a global reserve currency since the dollar’s position remains unchallenged. The global economic crisis dominated discussions and both leaders agreed on what needed to be done. Obama envisaged a world-wide job boom in clean energy technology as one way to restore employment and the economy once the crisis was sorted out. Obama said all nations would be challenged “in finding new areas of economic growth” that are going to be necessary to “replace some of the financial shenanigans that have taken place over the past couple of years.” Clean coal technology is one area of job creation in which both Obama and Rudd found common ground to work on.

    Viewed broadly, Rudd has two aims in shaping Australia’s relationship with the US under the Obama administration. The first is to maintain the robustness of the Australia-America alliance and wants to leverage closeness to Obama for promoting Australia’s middle-power diplomacy. The other aim is to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to join Obama in the war on terror, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Notwithstanding dwindling public support at home for sending more troops to Afghanistan Rudd’s boldness in joining the US in its campaign against terrorism has endeared him to the US. At present, Australia has 1100 troops in Afghanistan and the US is expected to ask Australia to increase that number. At the personal level, Rudd is still haunted by the September 11 attacks on the United States and the Bali bombings. The Newspoll published in The Australian just before Rudd left for Washington found 65 per cent of respondents against increasing Australia’s commitment. Both the US and Australia, however, do not want Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists. If Australia sends extra help only to concentrate on training Afghanistan’s security forces, Rudd probably can sell the idea positively to the Australian public. Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan is, however, not a blank cheque, Rudd explained.

    Rudd is aware that the alliance is fundamental for Australia’s national security. His international profile has been to work closely with Australia’s old “great and powerful friends” and to make new friends. That explains his fondness for China, an emerging Asian power, projected to play a decisive role in global politics in the coming decades and his focus on strengthening the economic ties with that country. Similarly, from the early days of the global financial crisis, Rudd liaised closely with Britain’s Gordon Brown. We can expect a great deal of similarity in focus between Rudd and Brown and Rudd and Obama in this week’s G-20 meeting in London and a conference on climate change in Copenhagen later this year. The Copenhagen meeting is designed to establish new global standards for emission reduction after the expiry of the Kyoto protocol in 2012. Rudd warned that the G-20 leaders must act jointly to clean up the banking sector, improve financial regulation, stimulate the economy and fight protectionism. He warns that a meeting in London in 1933 designed to find a consensus on ending the Great Depression failed because individual nations were not prepared to put aside their own interests in favour of global economic stability. In 1933, every nation put its own interests first. World leaders today are challenged not to repeat the mistakes made three-quarters of a century ago.

    Indeed, the world faces a 1930s-style recession unless world leaders put their agenda for a common program that will help address this burning issue that plague the world at present. The economic turmoil has increased the “challenge of statecraft and diplomacy” and reduction of carbon emission is one such problem that demands early action. After more than a year of planning and consultation with industry, Rudd plans to introduce an emission trading scheme from July 2010. However, the mining industry already shedding jobs and world trade collapsing under recession, the Opposition, parts of the business sector and some Labor right-wingers want the plan shelved. However, the cost of not acting on climate change is seen to be greater than the cost of acting soon.

    Traditionally, US Presidents go out of their way to ensure that the first encounter with Australian Prime Ministers is positive because of their close and solid partnership. Therefore, analysts would tend to compare the relationships between John Howard and George Bush and whatever develops between Obama and Rudd. The only starting point for that comparison is that Howard and Bush became close only after they faced a crisis – 9/11 terror attacks. Rudd and Obama have now come together during another crisis. This one is global recession. It would be interesting to see in the coming years what kind of bond both leaders develop that can sustain their common interests bilaterally and globally.