Despite fluent Mandarin and his background as a diplomat, Kevin Rudd irritated Asian powers as Australia’s leader and will need to mend fences in his new role as foreign minister, analysts said.
Rudd, who has become Australia’s chief envoy less than three months after being ousted as prime minister by his own party, was an outward-looking leader with a love of travel.
However, despite high ambitions of placing Australia at the center of Asian development, Rudd soured ties with China, Japan and India with his “megaphone” style.
“When he was prime minister, he actually left behind quite bad relations with a number of states,” said China expert John Lee, of the Centre for Independent Studies think tank.
“And it wasn’t necessarily bad relations between Australia and these states, it was bad relations between Kevin Rudd and these states,” Lee said.
“It’s not irreparable, but I think it’s a significant millstone that he begins with as foreign minister,” Lee said.
Rudd came to power in 2007 pledging closer ties with China.
However, relations slumped after the arrest and jailing of an Australian mining executive for bribery and industrial espionage, which was noted with tough language by the Rudd government.
“They [Chinese authorities] were essentially glad to see the back of Rudd,” Griffith Asia Institute director Andrew O’Neil said.
“They saw him basically, I think, as a bit of an upstart, this guy who could speak fluent Mandarin and lectured them in their own tongue about how appalling their human rights record is,” he said.
Instead of the trade focus desired by the Chinese, Rudd was intent on being a “true friend” who rapped Beijing for its faults, and “they didn’t like that one little bit,” O’Neil said.
India was upset by Rudd’s reinstatement of a ban on selling Australian uranium to New Delhi, and later by a series of attacks on Indian students living in the country.
Rudd also angered Japan by launching international court proceedings to stop its annual whale hunts.
In Southeast Asia, several countries resented his push for a new “Asia Pacific Community” forum, touted as a broader alternative to the APEC forum and ASEAN.
“Nothing came of the idea and that was probably because of a lack of thorough consultation, which is no surprise to anyone now given these were part of the reasons why Rudd himself was brought unstuck,” said Peter Khalil, the former PM’s senior foreign policy adviser.
Lee said Asian nations were anticipating a period of political inertia in Australia under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who relies on support from Green and independent parliamentarians, and would regard Rudd’s appointment with caution.
“I don’t think it’s a very good message to send, that a prime minister who was removed because he was seen as incompetent is now foreign minister,” Lee said.
“He doesn’t start with the benefit of good personal relations and a good record in the region,” he added. “I think they’ll still be suspicious of what he wants to achieve in Asia.”