View from The Hill

View from The Hill

International stage a respite for Gillard

Gillard’s talks will try to give a push to negotiations on the Australia-China free trade agreement. AAP/Torsten Blackwood

Julia Gillard will be among the first heads of government to meet the new leadership when she visits China in just over a week.

After the government’s traumas, stepping back onto the international stage will be an attractive proposition for the Prime Minister before she has to face the rigours of battling with the states over education funding at the Council of Australian Governments meeting on April 19 and then the test of the May budget, which will be critical in Labor’s attempt to regroup.

Gillard met the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping at a dinner at the Lodge, hosted by then PM Kevin Rudd in 2010, on the Sunday night before the coup that made her leader.

She has also met the new premier, Li Keqiang on a couple of occasions, and they co-chaired a meeting of business CEOs in May 2011 when she was in Beijing.

Leaving late next week, Gillard will first attend the annual Boao Forum for Asia, before going on to Beijing. The forum’s theme is “Asia Seeking Development for All”, and comes with addresses by leaders and extensive meetings between business executives.

Her Beijing talks will try to give a push to negotiations on the proposed Australia-China free trade agreement – after 19 rounds with no great prospect of early progress - as well as canvass economic and regional issues. Climate change will also be discussed.

Yesterday the Australia-China ministerial dialogue on climate change was held in Sydney; Minister Greg Combet said afterwards: “China is closely monitoring the implementation of Australia’s emissions trading scheme… In the future, we would like to work towards the development of an Asia-Pacific carbon market including major emerging economies like China and South Korea”.

Combet added that later this year China would begin pilot emission trading schemes in a number of provinces and major cities and aimed to move to a national scheme after 2015.

As well as her political talks, in Beijing Gillard will have a business round table, similar to the 2011 one. The delegation accompanying the PM is a who’s who of business names, including Gail Kelly, from Westpac, the ANZ’s Mike Smith, David Peever from Rio Tinto, and Tony Shepherd, president of the Business Council of Australia.

For Gillard, the China visit feeds into the government’s narrative of Australia in the Asian Century, and the opportunities that closer integration provide for long-term, secure jobs for Australians.

One initiative that could come out of the visit is some more formal architecture to guide how the relationship develops.

While China is part of the great Asian opportunity, the relationship has some more difficult and delicate aspects, especially defence issues.

The Chinese were upset by the 2009 Australian Defence white paper, which they they took as reflecting suspicion of China.

More recently, Australia’s involvement in the America “pivot” towards Asia, with the rotation of US troops through the north, was not received well. Before he was recruited to join the Gillard government as Foreign Minister, Bob Carr expressed concern about how Australia’s involvement would go down with the Chinese.

The government has imminent another Defence white paper – defence minister Stephen Smith said at the weekend it would be out by May-June.

James Brown, from the Lowy Institute, says the Chinese will only be interested in two aspects of this paper. The first is “what they can read [in it] about the US intentions”, while the other is “what force structure and budget we come up with, and how that plays into the US network”.

Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, sees some pulling back by the government from its language around the time of President Obama’s 2011 visit, when the rotation was announced.

“Gillard has well and truly understood that the Chinese were very displeased with the language she used during the Obama visit and she is is trying to reposition herself,” White says.

“All the evidence one sees is that 2013 white paper will be much more cautious in its references to China than the 2009 one”.

Gillard last week blew Kevin Rudd’s leadership hopes out of the water. But he remains to haunt. The former prime minister arrived in China yesterday. He’s having talks with Chinese officials to support businesses in his electorate that want to get into the Chinese market, and he will address the National Defence University today. He is expected to break into Mandarin but perhaps avoid any humour about leadership transition.