Turnbull in a China shop

We’re halfway through the Rudd Government’s first term, but if rumour becomes reality the next election may be just nine months away, in March 2010.  Then electors will have to decide whether to give Kevin Rudd, his ministers and his parliamentary team another term or, assuming no major changes in the Coalition, to elect a Malcolm Turnbull led ministry and government.  On what basis will electors choose?

The achievements, or otherwise, of the Government will weigh heavily on voters’ minds, as will the promise of the Coalition to do better.  The leaders, as is always the case, will profoundly influence people’s thinking, and this time it will be Rudd versus Turnbull.  The Political Sword has carried assessments of both, as is testified by at least 15 pieces detailed on Sword Watch this year. [more]

The most recent assessments of Turnbull have been in the satirical piece on the OzCar affair: Don't blame me and in a reflection on Annabelle Crabb’s essay: Stop at nothing - Malcolm Turnbull's fatal flaw?.  After the revelation of the fake OzCar email, his personal ratings fell further in two weeks than any other federal leader in the history of polling in this country.  It was anticipated that he would take steps to reverse his position. 

This piece, about the recent detention in China of Rio executive Stern Hu, offers another opportunity to assess the suitability of Malcolm Turnbull for Prime Ministership.

As the facts surrounding this matter are fragmentary and slow to emerge, I will attempt to replicate them only in summary:
-       Stern Hu, a Chinese-born Australian citizen, is head of Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations in China.
-       He, with three of his Chinese colleagues, were detained by the State Security Bureau accused of stealing state secrets from China via illegal means, including the bribing of internal staff of Chinese steel companies.
-       Whether he’s innocent or not is unknown – but many Australian commentators have taken the view that he must be innocent.
-       There seems to be a blurred line in China between commercial intelligence gathering and what the state labels the illegal ‘stealing’ of state secrets that could damage China.
-       This morning there has been a suggestion that China’s President Hu Jintao may have initiated the moves against Stern Hu and Rio Tinto.
-       Some have linked these moves to the failed commercial deal between Chinalco and Rio Tinto.

In this piece it is not intended to enter into the debate about the actual Hu case – too little is known for anything other than fruitless conjecture, which we can leave to journalists, who thrive on a diet rich in speculation and intrigue.  Just look at Glenn Milne’s piece in this morning’s Australian, Case calls for Kevin Rudd to ring his China plate where his object seems to be mainly to shoot yet another barbed arrow at Rudd.

Instead this piece canvasses the approach taken by the Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, his deputy Julie Bishop, and the leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Barnaby Joyce, and contrasts it with the approach taken by Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith and other ministers.

From the outset, Turnbull was on the airwaves irritably asserting that the detention of Stern Hu, an Australian citizen, was ‘unacceptable’ and insisting that Rudd ring President Hu Jintao at once and demand that Hu be released immediately.  Echoing this sotto voce, Julie Bishop took the opportunity on yesterday’s Insiders to catalogue in tedious detail everything the Government had not done that it should have, and what she would have done if she had been foreign minister.  Barnaby Joyce, in manner to which we are becoming accustomed, went in full bore insisting that Hu’s detention was ‘pay back’ for Chinalco’s failed bid for a slice of Rio Tinto, reiterating his pejorative mantra that China is  ‘a communist state’.  This morning we have had China guru Greg Hunt on Sky News asserting authoritatively that the Rudd Government’s ‘slowness’ in responding is due to it not wanting to cruel its bid for a Security Council seat, and that Rudd and Smith must pick up the phone and talk to their counterparts.

Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith and more recently Simon Crean, along with any minister who happens to be on TV, all say they are following the protocol for consular cases negotiated with China in 2000 by the Howard Government.  Talk about this matter has died down just a little today and acknowledgement is being made of the behind-the-scenes work that is being done that never enters the public domain.

Nobody would deny that the episode is embarrassing for Australia and that it is being treated in a demeaning way by the Chinese authorities.  Nor is anyone denying that this episode will be damaging for China’s international relations and business dealings.  And nobody is denying that Australia heavily depends on China to sell its resources and that China just as critically needs Australia’s resources.

So who’s approach is right, Rudd’s or Turnbull’s?

Anyone who has lived in a Chinese culture, as I have for several years, knows how carefully relations need to be handled.  Often underestimated by Western cultures is the importance to Chinese, and indeed many Asians, of ‘face’.  Loosing face is a serious embarrassment, something that is not forgotten.   Anyone causing loss of face, especially public loss of face, is resented, and may be the subject of reprisal.  So anyone who deliberately sets out to humiliate by causing loss of face seriously risks future relationships.  Having live in China for years, Rudd would be acutely aware of this.  So there is no way he would jump on the phone to Hu Jintao to demand the immediate release of a detained Australian citizen, as Turnbull insists he should.  That would be seriously poor diplomacy, and invite retaliation.  Foreign editor Greg Sheridan in a piece in today’s Australian, Beijing ramps up the humiliation begins “If Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu is not released from a Chinese prison soon, the pressure on Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Kevin Rudd to intervene directly with their counterparts will become irresistible.”   But later in his piece he says: “So far, there is nothing to criticise in the Rudd government's response. It is doing everything it can and understands the grotesque injustice done to Hu, the intimidation China is trying to exert on Australia and the high stakes involved.  Prime ministerial and foreign minister calls are cards Canberra will need to play eventually, but it is reasonable to extend some tactical flexibility to the Rudd government.”  He goes onto say “However, there is also nothing wrong in Malcolm Turnbull's energetic prosecution of the issue.”

But is there nothing wrong with Turnbull’s approach?  He is seeking to be Prime Minister and lead a Government that would of necessity have relations with China.  The Howard Government was highly critical of Mark Latham’s disparaging remarks about George W Bush and the affect this might have on Australia-US relations.  Is there a parallel here?  Should Turnbull become PM, would he expect China to relate to him as if he had not uttered his demand for Hu’s immediate release?  If so, that would portray unusual naivety and ignorance of Chinese culture, as well as a reflection of Turnbull’s aggressive style.  Julie Bishop’s protests and Barnaby Joyce’s utterances might be overlooked, but not Turnbull’s, the man who wants to lead the nation.

Has Turnbull considered how it might be if the boot was on the other foot?  A letter to the editor of The Weekend Australian from Harry Manson of Clareville, NSW paints this scenario: “Malcolm Turnbull’s habit of shooting from the hip hasn’t diminished since his ‘Utegate’ fiasco, and he is imitated by his own dissident Barnaby Jones, who immediately knows that the arrest of Rio-Tinto’s Shanghai-based executive Stern Hu is retaliation for the collapse of the Chinalco deal.  I wonder how Turnbull would react in the following scenario: one of the alleged 1500 Chinese spies in Australia is caught stealing state secrets, creating disaster for Australia.  He is arrested and detained.  President Hu Jintao telephones Kevin Rudd personally and ‘orders’ him to release the prisoner.  Rudd obliges.  What would Turnbull then say?  Without any doubt that Labor is soft on China, and fancy an Australian prime minister giving in to an order from a Chinese president?  Turnbull would probably couple this with his habitual demand for immediate resignations, this time of Rudd and his Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.  Cheap grandstanding is just too immature for words.”

Alternatively, would Turnbull, if he were PM, release the prisoner on Hu Jintao’s demand?  Not likely - his usual hairy-chested approach would apply.

On The Piping Shrike in a piece Flashpoint No. 2, ‘fred’, a regular on The Political Sword, made this pointed comment:  From The Age:

“’Mr Turnbull, said the …. should either release Mr …. or charge him. 'Holding somebody in detention without any charge is completely and utterly unacceptable,’ he said. ‘This is absolutely outrageous treatment of an Australian citizen.’

“’This should be the number one priority on Mr. ……’s agenda today. He should be on the phone to the …… leaders demanding that justice be done to this fellow Australian in ………,’ Mr Turnbull said.’

“You can fill in the blanks with these as you feel appropriate: Hu, Hicks, Rudd, Howard, China, America, Gitmo, Chinese, Americans.

“One set comes from Mr Turnbull.  One set comes from what should have been said by Mr Turnbull in the past.  But was not.

All this leads us to the question: “Does Malcolm Turnbull’s behaviour over the Hu incident fit him to be Prime Minister of Australia?  Does it improve his chances from that of two weeks ago?  Or is he behaving, as is usual, like a ‘Turnbull in a China shop’.

Is Kevin Rudd’s approach the one you prefer?

You know what I think.  What about you?

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15/07/2009Has someone put a sock in Truffles' mouth? Lately it seems that only his Deputy Dog is out there blustering on about the plight of Stern Hu and urging our PM to blunder in where angels fear to tread. Perhaps Ms.Bishop sees this as an opportunity to take over the leadership from Truffles but if so, her judgement is as suspect as her Leader's was over the ute affair. Maybe she is just taking advice from the likes of the grubby Glenn Milne.
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