Flashpoint No. 2

Friday, 10 July 2009 

When Rudd goes to international shindigs like the one in Italy, he has to play a delicate balancing game. He must be seen to be an active player without revealing Australia’s insignificance on the world stage. This is because Australian politics, and especially this government, is far more reliant on the international stage for prestige than its political weight on that stage permits.

This delicate balancing act has become trickier for all Australian governments as the weakening of the US’s political order becomes more evident. To manage this, Australia’s relationship with China is critical. For the coalition, ‘China-fretting’ offers an indirect means of grappling with the much more painful question of what the decline of US prestige means for the side of politics most directly reliant on it. For the government, developing a relationship with China at least allowed the government to appear to be forging out a new ‘middle power diplomacy’, when in fact such a middle course of diplomacy would not be possible.

For reasons we can now see. The detention by the Chinese government of an Australian businessman poses far more difficulties for Rudd than would be immediately apparent in the polls. The fact that the Australian government has not been involved until this late stage is a sign of how little influence it has in Beijing. The fact that Beijing could bring the charges against an Australian national at all indicates how limited influence Australia has in the world. It is hard to imagine such treatment of a US citizen.

This is why Rudd’s immediate response is to try and shut down the discussion by mimicking the Chinese government’s call for this not to be politicised. Rudd and the Chinese government need not have worried for now. It is striking that besides Turnbull’s fairly weak call for a telephone call to Beijing, it has been left to self-styled ‘maverick’ Barnaby Joyce to fill the vacuum.

It would arguably make sense for the coalition to tread carefully on this. Business interests are unlikely to be served by a political class making threats that they can’t follow through. The problem is that for a coalition in a struggle for ‘values’, this may be a temptation too large to resist. Whatever happens with the coalition, though, this is unlikely to stop it being more of a headache for the government than anyone.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 10 July 2009.

Filed under International relations

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8 responses to “Flashpoint No. 2”

  1. Ad astra on 10th July 2009 5:20 pm

    If Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Barnaby Joyce were in power, would they really say the things they’ve been saying these last two days? If so, what would that do to this country’s international relationships? If not – if they would talk more moderately and diplomatically, then their present behaviour is simply political opportunism, with no concern about the cost to the nation of their language.

  2. fred on 10th July 2009 7:06 pm

    From The Age

    “Mr Turnbull, said the …. should either release Mr …. or charge him. “Holding somebody in detention without any charge is completely and utterly unacceptable,” he said. “This is absolutely outrageous treatment of an Australian citizen.

    “This should be the number one priority on Mr. ……’s agenda today. He should be on the phone to the …… leaders demanding that justice be done to this fellow Australian in ………,” Mr Turnbull said.”

    You can fill in the blanks with these as you feel appropriate.

    One set comes from Mr Turnbull.
    One set comes from what should have been said by Mr Turnbull in the past.
    But was not.

  3. K Wick on 10th July 2009 11:06 pm

    I cannot agree with the comment “Can you imagine this happening to a US citzen” Yes. There are many US citzens now subject to Chinese Justice. God even North Korea has just given two US citzens Laura Ling and Euna Lee 12 years Hard labour in June

  4. The Piping Shrike on 11th July 2009 11:20 am

    I take your point, KW. It seems journalists and political activists are expendable even when they are US citizens.

    I more meant that I would find it hard to imagine an executive of a large US company being detained without even the US government being given a warning. But maybe I’m pushing the boat out on this.

  5. zoomster on 12th July 2009 7:56 am


    [It seems journalists and political activists are expendable]

    are we assuming that these journos/activists are innocent victims of a corrupt system (they maybe, I don’t know)? Isn’t there a possibility that they broke some laws and thus should face the consequences?

    I thought – whilst providing all aid and comfort they reasonably can to their own citizens – governments were supposed to allow other countries to administer their laws.

    Or are we applying the knee jerk response here that an Australian or US citizen was charged with an offence whilst overseas therefore they must be totally innocent?

  6. Ricc on 12th July 2009 10:15 am

    People get paid very well to take these risks. Danger money. Of course try your hardest to get them out but feigning surprise is a bit rich.

    It was reported that Hu had been meeting in HK to avoid Mainland law for months (although there have been famous abductions from HK across the border) so I suspect there was a hint of trouble for a while.

    As for North Korea – I’m sure any investigative journalism is defined as a crime so being arrested for it is no surprise. Mistaking the Korean/Chinese border is a problem but one of the hazards of the job.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 12th July 2009 12:57 pm


    are we assuming that these journos/activists are innocent victims of a corrupt system (they maybe, I don’t know)?

    certainly not on my watch.

    Ricc, I’ll leave it to the Chinese authorities, my interest here is the impact on a political class that can’t really handle this kind of slap down.

  8. Ricc on 12th July 2009 11:34 pm

    I’m fascinated that the media can’t decide is Rudd the Manchurian Candidate or not.

    One minute he is supposedly not their pet, next minute he supposedly is. The idea that his background with Chinese studies and his current job are unrelated doesn’t occur to them.

    How is it Rudd isn’t the Swedish Candidate. He used to work in Stockholm after all (Stockholm syndrome?) I bet he speaks Swedish too – if he’s learnt one language well I bet he picked it up easily too.

    Maybe that’s what the nanny-stating, big spending stuff, carbon capturing stuff is all about. He was planted by the Social Democrats to do their bidding in the south.

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