Australia’s new prime minister is comfortable with firsts. Kevin Rudd is the only Western leader who is fluent in Mandarin. He has set off on a lengthy world tour just after assuming office, with the first stop in the United States. And he kicked off the tour by quietly honoring an election pledge and opting out of a security alliance in the controversial occupation of Iraq.

Australia had looked to the United States for her security since World War II when Singapore fell to the Japanese and mother country Great Britain was on the retreat in Asia. Dangerously close to the marauding Japanese army, the sporting and laid-back Australia suddenly looked vulnerable, and the United States was a necessary ally.

It has been payback time ever since. Australian troops fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars alongside U.S. forces, which were also stationed in Australia. And Australia has steered clear of developing a wholly independent security policy. Save for a few adventurous moves, like Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s recognition of Communist China in the early 1970s, Australian heads of states never followed an active foreign policy at variance with the United States or United Kingdom.

Rudd at the Rudder

But Rudd took a very different position in his first foreign policy speech at an East Asia forum in Sydney: “The truth is Australia’s voice has been too quiet for too long. That is why during the course of the next three years, the world will see an increasingly activist Australian international policy in areas where we believe we may be able to make a positive difference.”

In the United States, he not only talked of pulling troops out of Iraq. He also emphasised UN responsibility – perhaps to avoid future interventions like the Iraq War. Rudd’s new approach deviates from middle-power diplomacy in the direction of genuine assertiveness. Australia seeks an even more active foreign policy through a seat in the UN Security Council. First, though, Rudd has to roll back much of what his predecessor John Howard did when he hitched Australia’s wagon to the United States.

Australian pubic opinion about the United States has undergone a sea change after Iraq. During Howard’s visit to the United States in 2006, nearly two-thirds of Australians according to a Roy Morgan report released that April, wanted their troops back home from Iraq. In Rudd’s native Queensland state, there was much opposition to his public relations exercise at a March 2008 press conference of conferring the honorary title of the state’s citizen to George Bush.

But can Rudd chart an independent foreign policy? The case of South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun is not encouraging. Attempting a policy toward North Korea at odds with the U.S. position did not help. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is now threatening to obliterate South Korea while Roh left office in the wake of scandals and bribery charges. And South Korea’s new leader is steering the country back into America’s arms.

Australia’s scenario is different. But Rudd faces an equally challenging job: juggling the United States and China.

Rising China

China is not only Australia’s largest trading partner, but one of the emergent economies of Asia. Rudd is an old China hand. Like no other western head of state, he is fluent in Mandarin, which will no doubt help strengthen Australia-Chinese relations.

Last on Rudd’s travel itinerary, China is nevertheless at the top of his agenda. Nearly 40% of China’s ore imports come from Australia. Mining is back in business, Chinese companies have bought controlling interests in Australian steel plants, and unemployment in Australia is at a three-year low. However, China recently berated Australia for raising ore prices, which may precipitate a search for cheaper supplies elsewhere.

But can Rudd make history by charming the Chinese to talk to Dalai Lama? He has already kicked up a row after repeating to Beijing university students that China violated human rights in Tibet, reiterating his earlier stand at a joint press conference in the United States with Bush during the early part of his tour. Rudd made headlines with his historic apology to the stolen generations of Aborigines, pledging to right wrongs and make a clear break from the past. This emphasis on human rights may complicate Australia’s relations with China.

Middle Course

Kevin Rudd might prefigure a paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy. Hillary Clinton has mulled over introducing Chinese and Arabic in some U.S. schools. Barack Obama cautioned that China should be seen as a competitor, not an enemy. Even John McCain as president will have to eschew some of the neo-conservative foreign policy that shaped the George W. Bush presidency.

With his knowledge of Mandarin and China, Kevin Rudd is perhaps best positioned to take a middle path, balancing relations with a surging China and maintaining traditional ties with the United States and United Kingdom. Such an approach has the potential of rendering Australia indispensable to the very powers that she has looked up to all along. If Kevin Rudd can achieve this vision, he can establish a model for the many nations that will likely find need for similar balancing acts in the future.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.