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In Australia: Mr. Rudd’s First Foreign Policy Stop? How about Jakarta?

November 28, 2007

The Australian federal election on November 24 ended more than 11 years of rule by the conservative coalition of Liberal and National parties led by John Howard. The new Labor party government is headed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a former diplomat and senior state government official with an intimate understanding of both domestic and foreign policy.

What can Asia expect from Kevin Rudd and his government? For three reasons, Australia’s foreign policy in Asia will remain largely unchanged.

First, relations with key partners in Asia are very sound, especially with regional giants Japan, China and Indonesia. The Labor party supports ongoing good relations with these countries and will not make any hasty changes in orientation.

Second, relations with Asia were peripheral, at best, during the election campaign. The Labor party did not pledge to change any aspect of foreign policy in Asia. The only foreign policy issues that came into play during the election were the unpopular war in Iraq and climate change.

Third, historically, there has been little to distinguish the two sides of Australian politics in matters of foreign policy. The Labor government will probably be more supportive of multilateral institutions, though not dramatically so. While the new Labor party government will withdraw most of Australia’s troops from Iraq, it will attempt to mollify the White House by heavily re-emphasizing its otherwise strong commitment to the security alliance with the U.S., which will include continued diplomatic support for the U.S. on matters of common interest in Asia, such as North Korea.

Typically, Australian prime ministers do not engage heavily in foreign policy until their second term in office, when they have become comfortable with the domestic issues that largely define their success. It’s not clear whether Mr. Rudd will stick to this pattern. As a former diplomat, he may be tempted to stamp his impression on foreign policy earlier than is usual for Australian prime ministers.

A hot topic in Canberra will be which of the big three ” Indonesia, China and Japan ” will be first on Mr. Rudd’s international itinerary. His pick for first bilateral visit will signal which country will occupy the greatest share of Australian foreign policy energies. I hope and expect Mr. Rudd will choose Jakarta. Why? The relationship with Japan requires far less maintenance than those with China and Indonesia, so Mr. Rudd will not choose Tokyo. He is a well-known expert on China, and is already highly regarded in Beijing, not least for his fluent command of Mandarin. By comparison, Mr. Rudd is almost unknown in Jakarta. Relations with Indonesia are presently very good, but fragile. Seemingly trivial events in either country can whip-up populist sentiment on both sides of the Arafura Sea. Mr. Rudd must establish a close and confident rapport with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as soon as possible to guard against such squalls. The relationship will start well if Mr. Rudd visits Jakarta before any other world capital.

Roderick Brazier is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Cambodia. In the 1990s he worked in the Australian Prime Minister’s Department.

View all posts by Roderick Brazier

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