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Wednesday, 4 June 2008
Page: 4461

Mr ROBB (3:25 PM) —For all the talk of the Prime Minister’s foreign affairs experience, after six months in government all the talk in our region is about the Prime Minister’s obsession with China at the expense of all other major relationships in North, East and South-East Asia. Already there has emerged a serious concern about the lack of balance and perspective in Australia’s regional foreign policy under the Rudd government. Already it is clear that this government came to office with no clear plan for protecting and growing and balancing our critical relationships in the Asia-Pacific region. Outside of China the major actions so far appear to be designed to ‘trail our coats’ with old friends and with strategic allies alike.

In just six months the Prime Minister has failed to pick up the phone to the Prime Minister of Japan to explain Australia’s gunboat diplomacy against Japanese whalers. It took 5½ months to make contact, despite the great honour that Japan bestowed on Australia immediately after the election in inviting our Prime Minister to the G8 talks in July. That was an invitation which was purely at the discretion of the Japanese Prime Minister and yet there has been no contact despite highly provocative actions being taken by Australia against the Japanese.

In just six months the Prime Minister has snubbed Japan and every other Asian country except China in his 17-day world tour. In just six months the Prime Minister has taken the axe to an already lean Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade by slashing over $100 million from the budget despite already committing Australia to an increased role in climate change, the UN, Asia and the Pacific and Afghanistan. Again, this government does not match actions with words. It slashed $100 million from the department of foreign affairs despite announcing a much upgraded program on the world stage.

In just six months the Prime Minister downgraded negotiations on a free trade agreement with both China and Japan. In just six months the Prime Minister effectively told India that we do not trust them with our uranium by reneging on the agreement of the former coalition government to supply India with uranium for power generation, seriously reducing India’s capacity to combat climate change. In just six months the Prime Minister abandoned Australia’s commitment to the quadrilateral dialogue involving India, the United States, Japan and Australia, again raising concerns, especially with India and Japan, about the Rudd government’s China bias.

All of this is against a background where the standing and the influence of Australia had never been higher when the Rudd government took office. Yet all those actions have occurred in the space of six months which have undermined that standing and influence. Over nearly 12 years of coalition government Australia found its confidence on the world stage and did not shy away from its responsibilities as a free nation. We were able to balance both of those important objectives. Over 12 years the coalition worked to strengthen simultaneously all of our key relationships. As a result the US alliance had never been stronger or our ties with Japan as broad and as deep. Relations with China had never been more productive. We enjoyed a close and frank relationship with the democratic leaders of Indonesia and we welcomed India as a major emerging power in global affairs.

Our approach to foreign policy was, first and foremost, directed to delivering greater national security and economic prosperity to Australians. It was grounded in realism to serve the national interest and was ably led by our former Prime Minister and the member for Mayo. We ensured that Australia played an important leadership role in our own neighbourhood while also being willing to fulfil broader international responsibilities with confidence and with resolve. Much of that in six months in the region has been undermined. Years of painstaking work to strike that balance has been undermined. We strongly believe that Australia can and should make a positive and enduring difference in international affairs.

Critically, our standing and influence around the globe, and in particular in our own region, was built upon an uninterrupted and superior economic performance compared with other major Western economies over the last 12 years, despite confronting the Asian financial crisis, the 2001 US recession, the tech bubble, 9-11 and the worst drought in 100 years. Much of our position, standing and influence in the region was born out of that superior economic performance. Good economic management assists good diplomacy, and good diplomacy helps to deliver good economic management. It enabled us to strike good relationships and to develop a measure of cooperation, especially with countries in the region, many of whom were very badly affected by the Asian financial crisis and the US recession, saw the aftermath of 9-11 in a serious way and were affected by the tech bubble. Because of our performance as an economy we were able to provide cooperation and that in turn enabled us to weather those storms. But all of those things are about consistency and balance in our international affairs.

In this context, Mr Rudd’s longstanding relationship with China and his Mandarin-speaking abilities should be a great advantage to Australia. However, to fully capitalise on those attributes—that longstanding relationship, that knowledge of China—Mr Rudd needs to almost overcompensate with other countries in the region so that fears of China bias do not sour many other critical relationships. So far, the opposite has been the case. India and Japan have been offended—gratuitously, unnecessarily. Indonesia has been overlooked—gratuitously, unnecessarily. Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and many others have rated no mention, no consideration. In March, Indonesia’s defence minister made a most unusual public intervention when he publicly expressed concern that the Rudd government may be putting too much stock in its relationship with China to the detriment of its links with near neighbours.

As our strongest friend in Asia, and our largest export market by a country mile, the only question the Japanese wanted answered when the Prime Minister took office after 24 November was: would he visit Tokyo before Beijing? Here is a man who is supposedly enormously experienced in the region and in international affairs. He understood the implications of not only not going to Tokyo before Beijing but ignoring the Japanese government and the Japanese Prime Minister for 5½ months, despite taking highly provocative action against whaling, despite receiving an invitation to the G8 summit and despite all sorts of other issues—ignoring all of those overtures from Japan. The Prime Minister must have understood the implications of his actions. For Mr Rudd to then spend four days in China on a 17-day world tour and not find one hour to visit Japan caused a great loss of face in Japan. He must have understood this. He knows these things. It was an act of diplomatic stupidity or, the more I look at it and try to search for explanations the more it seems an act of diplomatic perversity.

No doubt this action will serve to undermine Japan’s sense of confidence in its own position and in its relationship with Australia. It has set back our relationship a long way. This is our closest friend in Asia. We have had 50 years of a most extraordinary relationship with this country, Japan. And with six months of, in my view, ignorance, the Prime Minister of this country has severely undermined that relationship. Japan also lost face when our Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, made his offensively worded remarks on the abandonment of the quadrilateral talks between Australia, the United States, Japan and India while in a press conference with China’s foreign minister. Can you imagine that? What were they thinking about to put our foreign minister up with the Chinese foreign minister at a time when a series of actions had made other countries in the region doubt and worry about the China bias? What were they thinking about to put our foreign minister up to announce the unilateral abandonment of the quadrilateral talks? This has worried not only Japan but also India, and it has confused the United States. They wonder what we are on about. This is disturbing. China is of course of great importance to Australia—

Mr Kerr —You wouldn’t think so, listening to you!

Mr ROBB —It is called balance; that is what we are talking about. The quadrilateral dialogue of democracies was clearly abandoned to appease China. This is disturbing. China is of great importance to Australia, but we must not be in the position of tugging the forelock to any country. We must not be in that position. Further concerns have been raised in Japan and India and among South-East Asian countries over the lack of meaningful consultation with Australia over the Prime Minister’s preference to institutionalise and expand the six-party talks that were originally established to discuss North Korea—expand them to include Australia but not India or Indonesia.

The Rudd government’s decision to reverse the former coalition government agreement to supply India with uranium for clean power generation is also a serious snub to India and reduces India’s capacity to combat climate change. Its grubby motivation for reneging on this understanding with India is born purely out of party politics. And that is what they told the Indians—this is just a matter of party politics; this is not about the national interest. Nuclear power generation would be a safe, sustainable and nonpolluting source of energy for India. Clean nuclear power has the potential to meet 35 per cent of all of India’s expanded energy needs by 2050.

Yet what do we do with 40 per cent of the world’s uranium? We put our heads in the sand. It makes absolutely no sense at all to sell uranium to China and Russia and not to India. And 95 per cent of the people on the other side would believe, accept and agree with that. But, no, party politics says otherwise. Indian government officials have said they were angered by the Rudd government’s pathetic hypocrisy on this issue. This issue alone could make Australia a strategically important partner to India, the world’s largest democracy and an emerging regional powerhouse. It is the only thing they really want from us, the major thing. It is a big issue.

To date the Prime Minister has offended or ignored most countries in Asia and has failed to present a coherent policy towards Asia other than for China. Even in China, there are growing and persistent concerns about the way in which they are being discouraged from investing in resource projects in Australia. They are getting all sorts of funny signals coming out of Australia. They are being directly told to withdraw applications while this Australian government thinks about it. It is another watching exercise. But this is a dangerous situation.

The Howard government demonstrated that Australia could simultaneously deepen and broaden all of these relationships. The Rudd government has a regional repair job to do, and has to do it fast. The Prime Minister should start tonight, in his address to the Asia Society annual dinner, and acknowledge the damage his 5½ month snubbing of Japan has done—(Time expired)