Mon, Nov 26, 2007 - Page 4 News List

New PM expected to strengthen Beijing ties


As the first Western leader able to speak to the Chinese in their own language, Australia's new prime minister could play a vital role as a central link to the growing Asian powerhouse, analysts say.

Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd, who ousted long-serving conservative Prime Minister John Howard in elections yesterday, specialized in Asian studies and served as a diplomat in Beijing before launching a political career.

While Howard felt most at home with Western nations and was a staunch ally of US President George W. Bush, Rudd is likely to introduce a new era in relations with Australia's neighbors in Asia, analyst John Hart said.

"Howard was an old world prime minister in a new world country. He had a sort of 1950s attitude to Asia which never really left him. Rudd will be more positive and forward looking," Hart said.

Rudd's ability to speak fluent Mandarin was particularly significant, the Australia National University analyst said.

"Rudd is the first Western democratic leader who can speak to the Chinese in their own language. Any Western leader will tell you the Chinese are notoriously difficult to deal with and I think language could make a difference," Hart said.

If the US was "willing to exploit and take advantage of this unique skill Rudd has it could be a boon not only for the US but for the rest of the Western bloc. China's role in world affairs is changing. It is not only the economic growth that is spectacular, but it is taking a more constructive role on the world stage," he said.

It might seem a big call to see a language skill as so important in world affairs, but Chinese people both at home and abroad who have heard Rudd speak are particularly impressed by his fluency.

"The Chinese are influenced by the ability of Rudd to speak Mandarin, they're very impressed with that," said Tony Pang, president of the Chinese Australian Forum.

Rudd is also expected to forge a different path from Howard both globally and within Asia, Deakin University's Damien Kingsbury said.

"It was always clear that Howard was never entirely comfortable in the region and engaging these other political leaders was never his strength. Rudd will be much more comfortable in engaging with regional leaders," he said.

When Howard's government came to power in 1996 it wanted "to veer away from what they saw as a culturally apologetic approach to Asia," the Sydney Morning Herald's Asia-Pacific editor Hamish McDonald wrote on Saturday.

This led to a series of diplomatic missteps, including an early freeze in relations with China when the defense minister "started making belligerent statements about defending Taiwan," McDonald said.

Howard's government in its early years also alienated India, but the rapid economic growth of both nations later prompted Australia to work hard at repairing relations.

This saw Australia able to capitalize on Asia's insatiable hunger for its abundant natural resources, and Howard went on to preside over an unprecedented economic boom.

But relations always clearly based on economic interests could be broadened under Rudd.

"I think there will be a change in attitude," Kingsbury said.

"There will probably be a more engaged relationship with Asia, a more engaged dialogue that really opens up opportunities for better understanding," he said.

In a possible sign of things to come, the first foreign leader to congratulate Rudd was not one of Howard's Western allies but Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

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