Role in Asia slips off Gillard's radar

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2012, 12:00am


Australia has weathered the financial crisis better than other developed countries - its economy is strong and its government is flush with cash. Yet its ruling Labor Party is in disarray after a bitter leadership battle in which Prime Minister Julia Gillard defeated her predecessor and recently-resigned foreign minister, Kevin Rudd. The rift hurts the party's chances of winning re-election in polls that must be held on or before November 30 next year, but also puts a cloud over the nation's international policy. Among the thorniest of issues is the shape of relations with the US and what that will mean for ties with Asia, especially China.

As foreign minister, Rudd contended that Australia, along with other US allies in Asia, should rethink its strategic position to take into account China's rise. The 'Pax Pacifica' he spoke of was not clearly defined, but envisaged China and the US accommodating each other's interests and working together rather than being rivals. Although Gillard announced last year that a white paper, 'Australia in the Asian Century', would explore the issues, she is only a recent convert to the idea. However, foreign policy is not her strong point and she has issues that are more pressing to focus on.

Top of her agenda is forming a cabinet, which will involve appointing a new foreign minister. Those who voted for Rudd are likely to be replaced, deepening the turmoil that has been fermenting since Gillard overthrew him in a party coup in 2010. As long as they are unable to co-operate, Labor's chances of re-election will be dismal.

Gillard is unpopular with the electorate. Opinion polls indicate that Labor would lose to the opposition conservative Liberal Party-led coalition were an election held today. Her policies are disliked and, despite Australia's economic might, it is the mining companies that have most profited, not Australians in general. In the scramble to make the party more appealing, discussion of Australia's place in Asia and where China should be within the strategic order will take a back seat.