Australian ties with China tipped to become better

21:01, February 11, 2011      

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When Julia Gillard assumed the prime ministership in dramatic circumstances in June last year, many commentators in Canberra hoped that Australia's relationship with China would improve from the somewhat disappointing period under Kevin Rudd.

However, the bilateral ties remained a bit calm under Gillard's government over the past nine months.

Gillard, a new hand in foreign policy, should focus more on ties with China, the largest trading partner, and push it forward as there is much room to improve it, said a Chinese diplomat in Canberra.

There has been no prime ministerial visit from Australia to Beijing since August 2008 when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attended the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Ministerial visits were also dried up compared to the period under Rudd government.

Trading is only one part of the whole relationship between countries and political ties geared up by high-level visits are always important, the Chinese diplomat noted.

China is Australia's largest trading partner, with total trade in goods and services rising 15 percent year-on-year to hit 85 billion AU dollars (85 billion U.S. dollars) in 2009, according to Australian government figures. China became Australia's largest export market in 2009, overtaking Japan, with Australian merchandise exports to China rising 31.2 percent year-on-year to reach 42.4 billion AU dollars.

Michael Wesley, the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy based in Sydney, said that Gillard was heavily preoccupied with domestic issues and could not focus more on foreign affairs.

"I can't foresee in the near term future an opportunity for her to develop more of an interest or expertise in foreign policy," he told Xinhua.

"She's certainly not as confident in foreign policy as Rudd," Wesley said, describing Gillard as very cautious, pragmatic and careful in dealing with foreign matters.

The bilateral ties between China and Australia went ups and downs during Rudd's premiership from late 2007 to mid-2010. The relations improved somewhat in June 2010 when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping paid an official visit to Australia, just days before Rudd was ousted by his top aide Gillard.

However, many Australian analysts believe that Gillard, though less experienced in foreign affairs than Rudd, can do something to uplift the ties with China.

Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies and Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Center at the Australian National University, said Rudd perhaps presumed too much on his familiarity with China, and was at the same time too anxious not to appear " soft" on China to Australian and American audiences, thus giving his diplomacy with Beijing a strident tone.

But Gillard will not have these problems and can step up the bilateral ties, White told Xinhua in a recent interview.

Malcolm Cook, the Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University, echoed with White by saying that Rudd's own personal story and investment in China got tangled up with Australia's interests.

"Gillard doesn't have that same investment in China. The relationship will become easier to manage, especially because it's very good to have a foreign minister (Rudd) with such a background in diplomacy and in China itself," he said.

Speaking to the Australian Chinese community in January at a Sydney dinner function to mark the Chinese New Year, Prime Minister Gillard said her commitment to the Australia-China relationship is enduring and strong.

"I am looking forward to visiting China," she was quoted as saying. "This is a decisive decade for China and her place in the world. Australia welcomes the emergence of China as the world's second largest economy," Gillard said.

Gillard's first official prime ministerial visit to China, probably taking place in this year, would focus mainly on the burgeoning economic relationship between the two countries, which speaks well to the domestic audience in Australia, Cook said.

Source: Xinhua(by Jiang Yaping, Paolo Hooke)
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