26 March 2008

Mixed messages as usual

The only country that could cut itself off from others and survive is China. The United States would die if it walled itself off from influxes of people, goods and ideas, and so would Australia. China is a nuclear power and is enormously powerful militarily. When John Roskam talks about getting tough with China, what (if anything) does he mean?
IF THE priority the Rudd Government attaches to an issue can be determined by the number of media releases about it, then halting Japanese whaling is more important than stopping Chinese repression in Tibet.

Why on earth would press releases be any sort of indicator of importance? A press release is a device to attract the attention of the media. Kevin Rudd put together his entire government over the summer, and the only thing he put out a press release about was the accommodation of his family pets.

To his credit, Roskam concedes that the capacity of the Australian government to stop repression in Tibet is limited. To his discredit, he does not think about this in protesting that the government has done what it can, where it can, using press-release diplomacy.
When it comes to Tibet, so far there's been nothing more than a quiet plea for "calm and restraint by all parties". Relations between Australia and China are business as usual. When the Prime Minister was asked whether he would mention Tibet on his visit to Beijing, he refused to answer. He also refused to respond when asked whether he would urge China to allow international observers into Tibet.

That paragraph could have been written at any point over the past thirty years, about any Australian Prime Minister serving over that time. However, some things do change:
Discussion about a possible boycott of the Olympics has highlighted the changing moral certitude of our past and present politicians. Malcolm Fraser advocated sporting sanctions against South Africa and a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, but now believes that the Beijing Olympics should proceed uninterrupted.

In 1980, when the world was very different, Fraser took a policy on the Moscow Olympics that he has since recanted; he admits that a full Australian boycott would not have made a damn bit of difference to the actions of the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan or anywhere else. His attitude to the Beijing Olympics seems to show that he has learned his lessons from that time.

China aint South Africa. The success of sanctions against the apartheid regime has encouraged people to apply this as a universal cure for repressive regimes. In the case of China, it's a mistake.
It's interesting to speculate what would happen if a small proportion of the effort the Australian Government allocated to getting publicity for its opposition to whaling was instead devoted to encouraging China to strengthen the political rights of its citizens.

No it isn't. Bugger-all would happen, and there's nothing interesting about that.
Certainly the situation of Tibet is complicated because both the Coalition and Labor accept Chinese sovereignty over the province.

If the Dalai Lama can concede that a free and independent Tibet is a non-starter, so can John Roskam.
While he didn't quite commit to pursuing an "ethical" foreign policy, he loudly proclaimed that Australia would do more to uphold international standards of human rights

It shouldn't be too hard to eclipse John Howard's record on upholding internationalist conceptions of human rights, and I would be surprised if this isn't achieved at some point over the next few months. Rudd may pick some area other than Tibet to do this, and at this point it's still fair to give him the benefit of the doubt.
He's not even willing to do the most basic symbolic act, which is to raise the subject.

Refusing to answer the question of a journalist, refusing to flag his punches before he gets there and refusing to fritter away any good he may do in other areas, is not the same as actually refusing to do it (he hasn't even arrived there yet, John). Rudd may do all that without, as Roskam has admitted, achieving anything for the people of Tibet anyway. Roskam has held Rudd to standards to which neither Rudd nor Roskam adheres.
Given that the Prime Minister makes so much of his special relationship with the Chinese Government ...

Does he? I think that others, opponents and allies alike, make more of it than he does.
... it would have been thought that the Chinese would have at least listened to him, even if they ignored what he said.

And they may yet do so, John. It's too early to blame Rudd for something that hasn't happened yet. If you're going to set Rudd up to fail, or look like a hypocrite, you'll have to work harder than that.

Mixed messages are the norm in foreign relations. Diplomacy involves keeping it light and vague as a cover for more concrete action. Clear, unambiguous messages are rare in foreign policy: war, or the sort of contempt reserved for Robert Mugabe, are exceptions to the rule of positive-sounding ambiguities. This is true of the current Australian government, and previous ones: it is true of other countries' governments too, including that of China.

John Roskam can criticise Rudd for action or inaction in certain areas, but doing so pre-emptively on the basis (or absence) of press releases is silly. It helps to be clear about your own position, too: could I suggest that John Roskam's interest in Tibet is not of long standing, and that Kevin Rudd has forgotten more than Roskam has learned about the subject?

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