With the world’s political elite motorcading their way around Sydney this week, John Howard has been waving his Sydney Declaration on climate change around with one hand, a pen in the other.

Signatures from a host of world leaders will play well domestically for a PM searching for credibility on the issue. The support of fellow Kyoto hold-out George Bush was a given, but the support of China — a neighbour, a developing nation, and a customer with an insatiable appetite for Australia’s coal — was never guaranteed.

Chinese President Hu Jintao yesterday reiterated his support of the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the Sydney Morning Herald claims “opens up divisions among the APEC leaders and undermines the chances of a breakthrough on climate change negotiations at the Sydney summit.” China may still sign the Declaration if it re-affirms the primacy of Kyoto, but is that an acceptable compromise for Howard?

China, like many other Asian countries, view Australia’s pronouncements on climate change with suspicion, not least because of our dependence on brown coal, both burned locally and exported. Australia’s record of land clearing is also cited in the region as evidence that Australia is being disingenuous.

“It’s seen as a bit hypocritical when developed states, particularly nations like the United States and to a large extent Australia, tell other developing nations what to do when we haven’t done it ourselves,” Dr Sara Davies, expert in international relations at Queensland University of Technology, told Crikey. “These nations also question what Australia’s purposes might be here. Is your purpose here to tell us what energy needs are so that we are reliant on you?”

The suspicion goes beyond climate change. Australia and the US this week signed the Treaty of Defence Trade Co-operation which, among other things, allows the US to park advanced military equipment in our backyard and share greater amounts of top-tier security information. Beyond what it means for American power in the region and Australia’s relationship with a nation seen to be hostile to Islam, that diplomatic chumminess raises eyebrows.

“I imagine what Asian countries resent more than anything is this constant bilateralism when APEC is meant to be about multilateralism,” said Dr Davies.

Just as Australia’s views on climate change are not accepted elsewhere in the region, there are political statements made, especially for domestic political consumption, that translate badly in South East Asia, a fact the PM sometimes forgets.

“When Australia was working out a 1000 mile exclusion zone, the policy went down poorly in Jakarta. If you draw a 1000 mile line around Australia you take yourself into Indonesian waters,” says Dr Greg Barton, a Monash University research professor who studies Indonesia.

“Likewise when Howard talked about retaining the right of preemptive strikes even within the territories of other nations. In places like Indonesia and Malaysia, that was seen as a possibility of F1-11s coming over the horizons taking out local targets. It came across as being very arrogant.”

Howard and his diplomats have a prime opportunity this weekend to contract diplomatic foot in mouth disease when they join trilateral talks with the US and Japan. China, among others, will have its ear pressed to the door.

“That’s one of those occasions when, if somebody says something carelessly, or doesn’t think through their remarks properly, it could bounce around the region. I think the next few days are going to be very interesting.”