As she returns from the G20 and APEC leaders’ summits, Julia Gillard might reflect on a more successful outing in foreign affairs than her first expeditions into the region a fortnight ago, which were dogged by her efforts on the East Timorese Solution.

And Australians, it seems, are well aware that their governments must operate in a far more multi-polar world than in previous decades. China outranks all but the United States and New Zealand in terms of the importance Australians attach to a close relationship, today’s Essential Report suggests. Moreover, it’s a relationship they want to see strengthened more than any other, even more than our relationship with Washington.

Like every other country, Australia must work out how it handles the rise of China — with the complication that we have an even greater economic stake in that rise than most countries.

Kevin Rudd adopted the sensible course on China of treating it like any other country. He eschewed the talk of “special relationships” that marred Bob Hawke’s efforts to cultivate relations with Beijing, declined to cater to the cryptic over-interpretation of “old China hands” and simply treated the country as a mature international citizen. In doing so, he insisted that while China was economically of great importance to Australia, that did not alter our need to speak clearly on Australia’s interests and on international concerns like human rights. This approach appeared to confound many in the Australian foreign policy commentariat, who alternately accused him of being too soft and too aggressive toward China, a power they hold should be considered only through a matrix of inscrutability and strategic deception.

Julia Gillard may lack Kevin Rudd’s famous background on matters Chinese but she would do well to retain continuity between Rudd’s policy and her own on China. As Rebiya Kadeer, whom the Rudd Government permitted to enter Australia against the vociferous objections of China last year, has noted, China needs Australian resources every bit as much as we need the strong demand of the resources boom.

Peter Fray

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