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PM solved Rubik's Cube of diplomacy but won't get credit

Julia Gillard being welcomed to the Boao Forum by Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China.

Julia Gillard being welcomed to the Boao Forum by Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China. Photo: AAP

It has been said before that if it weren't for bad luck, Julia Gillard would probably have no luck at all.

This was a foreign policy Rubik's Cube and one Gillard alone can claim credit for puzzling out. 

That's the way it looked again this week as the brinkmanship on the Korean peninsula stole oxygen from the first days of her China visit and an asylum seeker boat got as far south as Geraldton, just as she wrapped up the trip on Wednesday.

The Korean crisis was not on the formal agenda of the annual Bo'ao Asia business forum, which kicked off Gillard's diplomatic tour de force.

But it may as well have been. It dominated talk on the Bo'ao sidelines and was referenced by leaders including hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping and by Gillard herself.

But, surprisingly enough, she was not animated by the inconvenient timing of Kim Jong-un's prelude-to-war pantomime.

A survivor of many bad moments during her troubled premiership, Gillard is now philosophically of the ''what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'' school.

But her equanimity stems from something else also: namely, an assessment that the bizarre North Korean situation will not, as many fear, become a full-blown military crisis with nuclear dimensions.

Gillard views the North's bellicose posturing as just that.

And, importantly for the bigger picture and the optics of her visit, she remains confident of Beijing's capacity to contain the problem.

Great powers, she believes, whether established like the US, or emerging like China, need a substantial degree of strategic space in which to operate.

What they do not need is to be further hemmed in by the expectations or ''principled'' advice and demands of others. Thus she is unmoved by the many calls for China to more overtly rein in its renegade client state, or by fears Beijing will simply sit on its hands.

It is a nuanced reading of complex international circumstances for which Gillard was expressly not well known in her early days as Prime Minister.

Having taken over from the foreign affairs obsessed Kevin ''747'' Rudd, Gillard initially attempted to play down any fascination for travel or the world stage.

This was a mistake. Like many a tactical blunder, it was a clunky attempt at alternative positioning transparently designed to mark her out against Rudd as domestic in orientation and suburban in essence - a leader, yes, but a reluctant one far happier in socks and trackies in front of the telly than in business jets, glad-handing her way around the power councils of the world.

No doubt, she would willingly retract this disgracefully anti-intellectual sentiment if only because it didn't work.

It was always silly anyway because it unwisely surrendered one of the few genuine advantages of incumbency: the responsibility to travel internationally and the authority that attaches to it. She might also want to live it down because, as (rotten) luck would have it, foreign policy now stands as Gillard's most unalloyed strength.

Who knew? During her short time at the top, this reluctant diplomat has driven three of the most important foreign policy articulations for Australia in decades.

These are: the historic ''pivot'' of the US to the Asia-Pacific region with Australia placed crucially at front and centre; the long-overdue rapprochement with the world's second-biggest country by population, a colossal market and an obvious cultural confrere, India; and now the historic agreement with Beijing to elevate the Sino-Australian relations to new heights.

Each of these changes is a significant piece of work in the national interest but the fact that Gillard has managed to deliver all three in a term, given their complex interplay, is remarkable.

Each will be dismissed by Gillard's critics as the low-hanging fruit. With the US, it is self-interest in containing China. With India, it was a case of caving in and selling them our uranium. With China, it is mere window dressing. Forget about it. This was a foreign policy Rubik's Cube and one Gillard alone can claim credit for puzzling out.

Think about it. Simultaneously deepening Australia's defence and strategic enmeshment with the US while restoring damaged and neglected relations with the emerging economic giant of India and then finding a favoured path to the inside councils of China, the great rival of both India and the US.

Which brings us back to luck. The China deal is big and has made front-page news in Beijing. But any credit will come too late for Labor.

Gillard began declaring she was not interested in diplomacy and yet finished up being substantially better at it than the self-important preeners she succeeded.

Foreign policy will be her enduring legacy but few votes turn on it and it has all come too late, anyway, to make a difference in September.

Mark Kenny is chief political correspondent.

Paul Sheehan is on leave.

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383 comments

  • Hmm Bob Ellis had a much more positive take on this and other new factors affecting her leadership chances.
    It's all about perception.

    Commenter
    A country gal
    Date and time
    April 11, 2013, 6:41AM
    • Well done "country gal" you beat "Hacka" and "SteveH" off the mark with their usual benign commentary. How did you do it? Not sleeping too well last night?

      Commenter
      Skuze Me
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 8:50AM
    • Like to hear from the Greens on this. They have long been criical of China's human rights abuses and treatment of Tibetans and Uyghurs amongst others. Rudd has met with the Dalaii Lama when he was in opposition and also raised Tibet when he was in China as PM. Gillard has neither met with the Dalai Lama or raised Tibet - this would no doubt have assisted events of the past few days. Human rights abuses aside, Gilard's trip was successful and should be quickly built upon by an incoming Abbott government

      Commenter
      Tim of Altona
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 9:00AM
    • Don't they say "A week is a long time in politics". I would not be writing off our PM just now. She will do a "Bernborough" & beat Tony before the winning post.

      Commenter
      Bazza
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 9:11AM
    • Tim of Altona
      Perhaps you didn't hear the news (I know Sky cut the press conference short) but Julia said Human Rights were and remain on the agenda for the high level talks with China.
      It's a pity Mudoch didn't want us to hear that.

      Commenter
      Steve
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 9:25AM
    • Credit, lots of it should also go to ex-PM K Rudd. Such diplomatic outcome takes a long time and many people.

      Commenter
      Dr B S Goh
      Location
      Australian in Asia
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 9:27AM
    • @"Skuze Me"

      "Well done "country gal" you beat "Hacka" and "SteveH" off the mark with their usual benign commentary. How did you do it? Not sleeping too well last night?".

      Impressive isn't it.

      The "Slick" Abbott cheer squad's reliance on dial up must have failed.

      Commenter
      J. Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 9:43AM
    • Skuze me, Yep, truly amazing and by 2 mins ! (yep not the best sleep).
      Symbolic of the race ahead, imperitative to keep ahead with a positive narrative and policy.
      Given Abbotts blunders of late if the govt keeps delivering visionary infrastructure/reforms, increased positive world stage presence and ceases the internal white anting then maybe the tide of fate can change. And get the refugee policy sorted and in context.
      I don't think Abbott will be able to cope when the focus of policy is upon him and his team.
      The appearance of Turnbull when delivering their phoneyband was telling, not happy.
      Bishop and Morrison clutching at straws.The pressure is now on and continual negativity has a limited lifespan. Times up Tony, time for scrutiny, playtime is over.
      But all so dependant on the MSM/ABC.

      Commenter
      A country gal
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 9:49AM
    • No doubt mysogony is also on the agenda as the one child policy of forced abortions and removal of womens rights to decide on the number of children they have. What? didn't she stick to he promise of 'I'll call it when I see it' - maybe she will on her next trip there.

      Commenter
      enough is enough
      Location
      Labor party La La Land
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 9:53AM
    • A counrty gal.
      The events that kenny "covered" could be portrayed positively or negatively.
      I would expect no less of a loyal ex murdoch lieutenant than to litter his "opinion" piece on any Labor politician with
      subliminal references to bad luck, unsubstantiated predictions about it being too late, blunders, clunky; throw in a few nicknames like "747"
      (maybe when kenny mentions howard he could preface the mention with "honest" - but I doubt we will see that).
      This piece is more biased and lazy accounting of events by kenny who has shown he is not able to cover politics in this country in an objective and impassioned way.
      The article encapsulates the way the media is treating the current government.
      Kenny is just an opinion writer, chief political correspondent material he is not.

      Commenter
      nkelly
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 10:03AM

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