Julia Gillard Setting Her Own Course With China

April 6, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard tours a photo exhibition in Washington. 'The United States and China are both important to our future,' she told US reporters. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard tours a photo exhibition in Washington. 'The United States and China are both important to our future,' she told US reporters. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY—Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s forthcoming visit to Beijing is likely to be a low-key, trade-focussed affair, say China observers, but it may auger a new tone in the Australia China relationship.

“I suspect it will be polite, efficient, professional, but with little flourish or fanfare,” said Dr John Lee, a specialist in international relations with the Australian Centre for Independent Studies.

It is Ms Gillard’s first visit to China as prime minister and the first for an Australian leader since former PM Kevin Rudd visited with plenty of media hype over his Mandarin speaking skills.

Dr Lee, who is also a visiting fellow with the Hudson Institute in Washington, says the sort of attention Kevin Rudd drew was not to Australia’s advantage, noting that expectations of closer relations were raised on the China side, resulting in an inevitable shortfall.

“We then saw the lowest points in the Australia-China relationship a couple of years later, for a generation,” he said.

While Julia Gillard has little affinity with China, there are indications that Australia’s largest trading partner has not been far from the prime minister’s mind.

Australia US Alliance

Her visit to China follows a successful visit to the US, where she spelt out clearly where Australia’s allegiances lie.

“The United States and China are both important to our future,” she told US reporters. “Our alliance with America is rock solid, but we want to see China take its proper place in the rules-based order in our world.”

Concerns were also raised, by Republican Senator John McCain, about China’s military build-up, which has seen a double-digit rise in military spending in the last year and agitation by Chinese forces in the South China Sea.

The prime minister was diplomatic in responding, but acknowledged the concerns, saying: “I think Australia and the US need to co-operate on all strategic challenges and what is happening in our region is largely being defined by the rise of China.”

Dr Lee said concerns about China’s military build-up were legitimate.

“Until China can credibly account for the increases, we have no option but to view China’s military expansions as potentially destabilising,” he said.

However, he did not believe that the prime minister’s statements would impair her standing in China.

The Chinese leadership’s primary focus is economic, he said, and, as a result, Chinese leaders see relationships with Western leaders as processes of “competitive negotiating”.

“What we see as friendliness can often be interpreted as acquiescence or weakness by Beijing,” he explained.

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