Julia Gillard needs to take foreign policy emphasis away from China and undo the damage of the Rudd government era, while focusing on other nations in the South East Asia region, says a foreign affairs expert. And another says that the federal government needs to offer a “grand gesture” — possibly the sale of uranium — to ensure closer ties with India.

Gillard has spent the last few days rubbing shoulders with regional partners at the East Asia Summit, where, amongst other initiatives, she has been gauging support for a regional approach to asylum seekers. All eyes have been on the Prime Minister’s performance at the summit, after she commented during her first overseas trip to Europe a month ago that “foreign policy is not my passion”.

John Lee, a research fellow in foreign policy at the Centre for International Studies, says that while Gillard won’t be haunted domestically by those remarks, they “will lessen her standing in the region.”

“It is way too early to tell, but the early indications are that she will do as little as possible in foreign policy terms,” Lee told Crikey. “She seems to have taken the attitude that foreign policy successes will not earn votes but foreign policy mistakes might lose them.”

China should not be the primary focus of foreign policy like it was under former prime minister Kevin Rudd, said Lee, instead there should be deepening security relationships with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and India, “whilst taking advantage of economic opportunities presented by events such as China’s rise.”

“[Gillard] is much less ambitious than Rudd but also less prone to policy, political and execution mistakes than the former PM. She may not achieve much but she will also not be as damaging as Rudd was in this area.”

Professor Andrew MacIntyre, Dean of ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, says that, despite an “early, conspicuous misstep” over the establishment of an asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor, Gillard has showed a solid, safe pair of hands in dealing with the South-East Asia region, “without any particular razzle-dazzle”.

Furthermore, she should only be damaged “rhetorically, not substantively” by her comments on foreign policy.

“Many leaders don’t have foreign policy as their strong suit — at least to begin with,” MacIntyre told Crikey. “I would say that was true of Howard, for instance. But he also grew to become more comfortable and engaged with it. She may well too.”

Good foreign policy in South East Asia involves maintaining a productive relationship with nations like Indonesia, says MacIntyre. “And also working with countries that either can give us trouble [eg. Singapore or sometimes Malaysia] and also working with emerging new “allies” or like-minded players [e.g. Vietnam]. ASEAN cohesiveness is also a wild card factor.”

Dr Auriol Weigold, visiting fellow at the University of Canberra and an expert on the Australia-India relationship, says that Gillard should look to promote a strategic partnership between the two nations, “that is more that the expansion of economic links and affirmation of cooperation.”

“Ensuring a “good” relationship with India will probably need a grand gesture that has meaning for India and indicates Australia’s wish to be a partner at a strategic level,” Weigold told Crikey. “Given India’s global attraction as a nuclear commerce and energy trading partner since the near-finalisation of the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement, such a grand gesture by Australia might be selling uranium to India, or reviving the quadrilateral discussions, both abandoned when the Rudd Government took office.”

Fergus Hanson, research fellow at the Lowy Institute, says that it will be interesting to see how Gillard uses foreign policy to tackle climate change and whether she departs from Rudd’s international approach.

“In terms of the dynamics between Rudd and Gillard, Rudd is still very interested in foreign affairs,” said Hanson. “It’s going to be a competitive space but it works reasonably well at the moment. With the current state of parliament, she is going to have to concentrate on domestic issues and won’t have a lot of time to attend meetings overseas.”

With Rudd keeping a close eye on foreign policy development as foreign affairs minister under the Gillard government, John Lee says that there are lessons to be taken from the work of former prime ministers in Asia:

“Both Howard and Hawke in the modern context eventually formed sound policies in the region — pursuing economic integration and opportunities whilst hedging by strengthening the alliance with the US and other partners such as Japan and Singapore at the same time. They worked with regional partners to achieve better policies – they didn’t try to talk over the region as Keating and Rudd attempted to do.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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