IF JULIA GILLARD’S first overseas tour as Prime Minister has been remembered for her comment that ”foreign policy is not my passion”, then on her second trip she is showing that she might have really meant it.
At the weekend’s East Asia Summit Gillard was as cautious in her footwork, modest in her goals and as awkward in the company of global leaders as her predecessor Kevin Rudd was ambitious and at ease.
Gillard ducked every big question about how Australia should engage with the forces that are reshaping the Asia-Pacific region.
As China is growing more assertive, more nationalistic and more important with each passing day, and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is deepening ties with almost every other country, Gillard is focusing her diplomatic energy on the most domestic of foreign policy challenges: stemming the arrival of refugees into Australia.
It is no coincidence that she is in Malaysia today and will fly on to Indonesia, when the support of both countries will be crucial in slowing the flow of refugee boats.
Her tentative early steps on the world stage are unlikely to reassure some analysts – such as the Lowy Institute chief, Michael Wesley – who worry that Australia lacks not only the capacity ”but also the predisposition to do hard thinking”.
But while Gillard was low-key, she also did what she set out to achieve. Her concerns about people smuggling were registered in the East Asian Summit’s final communique. And it is too early to call the end of Australia’s ”middle power” ambitions.
Gillard built on the work that Rudd, the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, and his predecessor, Peter Costello, had done to establish the G20 as the premier forum to deal with global economic challenges.
Similarly she has strongly supported the East Asia Summit’s evolution into a forum that is capable of mediating political and security disputes between global powers – again building on Rudd’s efforts. And she quietly made a series of substantial gestures of support for Association of South-East Asian Nations members, including 7500 university scholarships over the next five years.
Gillard is likely to grow into her international responsibilities and, in the meantime, she is sensibly avoiding unforced errors and accepting the steady guiding hand of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary, Dennis Richardson. There will be no repetition of Rudd’s record of promising more than could be delivered.
And Rudd may be more effective in achieving his international vision now that his energy is confined to the foreign affairs portfolio. In Beijing this week he is due to articulate a ”third way” for dealing with China.