Within hours of becoming Australia’s next prime minister on Saturday night, Kevin Rudd was congratulated by US President George W. Bush, Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s president.
The trio of calls were made, respectively, from Australia’s most important strategic ally, its former colonial master, and the world’s most populous Muslim country, also one of its nearest neighbours.
They underline the importance of Australia, a mid-sized economic power feeding the global appetite for natural resources, as a stable economy on the tip of south-east Asia and a leading western democracy that, under its previous leader, threw its weight behind the US and UK to invade Iraq.
Mr Rudd, who pledged in opposition to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, refused to comment on whether that issue had come up during his conversation with Mr Bush, who had previously shown antagonism towards his stance.
“I emphasised to President Bush the centrality of the US alliance in our approach to future foreign policy,” Mr Rudd said in his maiden press conference since his election win, adding that he had solicited an invitation to visit the US next year.
Mr Rudd said he would make good on his election promise to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change – a key area of policy difference with John Howard, former prime minister – as soon as possible, a move that leaves the US isolated on the world stage.
To underline his commitment to the environment symbolically, Mr Rudd will attend next month’s United Nations climate change talks in Bali, rather than send one of his senior ministers.
Mr Rudd said Mr Yudhoyono had extended an invitation to him to attend the Bali talks and the two leaders had also discussed their ties, with Mr Rudd, saying it was an “absolute imperative” for Australia to have a strong bilateral relationship with Indonesia.
Dino Djalal, a spokesman for the Indonesian president, said Mr Yudhoyono was the first foreign leader to call Mr Rudd.
“I think that is important and reveals how much Indonesia-Australia relations have evolved,” Mr Djalal said.
Mr Rudd also discussed climate change with Mr Brown, in Uganda at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting. “I discussed with him, at some length, what we could do in the future to co-operate further on climate change as two governments and I look forward very much to working closely with the British government,” Mr Rudd said.
The two leaders also touched on Iraq, Afghanistan and global security.
Mr Rudd later said he looked forward to working with Britain on a “range of foreign policy measures across the world”.
Saul Eslake, chief economist at the ANZ bank, said it was no surprise that China’s President Hu Jintao had not been in direct contact with Mr Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat to Beijing who wrote his honours thesis on Wei Jingshen, the Chinese dissident of the 1970s, in a paper that also documented the country’s history of human rights.
Allan Fels, dean of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, said Mr Rudd’s interest in China was well known and he forecast “even greater political linkages” between the two countries.
He also expects a “slight distancing” in the relationship with the US, and a broader swing in support for multilateral organisations such as the UN.
Although no radical changes are expected, Mr Fels says Mr Rudd “will look more naturally to Asia”, compared to Mr Howard’s more traditional orientation “towards the US and Europe”.
Closer to home, Mr Rudd will face ever-growing instability in the Pacific countries of Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, said Mr Fels.
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