18 October 2003

Hu embraces Australia as cultural bridge

Australia is about to get a ringing endorsement from Asia's biggest country - China. It will say that Australia is part of the region and should be a member of its trade and other groupings, countering repeated signals from Malaysia in particular, that it is an outsider.

This will be part of Chinese President Hu Jintao's message to Australians when he speaks to the Federal Parliament in Canberra on Thursday, according to He Yafei, the head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's department running relations with North America, Australasia and the South Pacific.

President Hu will also say that while China understands Australia's military alliance with the US, it hopes Australia also will see its security in terms of developing mutual trust with China and other countries in the region.

Coming a day after US President George Bush speaks in the same spot, this implicitly urges Canberra to resist any American moves to build up Cold War-style 'containment' of Chinese power, and deepens the dilemma of defending Taiwan if the breakaway island moves to formalise its effective independence.

Hu's attitude is important. Mahathir's recent speeches promoting conspiracy theories about Jews ruling the world, sentiments applauded by Megawati, need to be answered by constructive engagement in the region, but not to the detriment of human rights. That means hard decisions about China but it also means hard decisions about Aceh and West Papua. The nation is hearing a great deal about how George Bush is to be received when he addresses the parliament on Thursday. We need to hear more about how MHRs and senators plan to draw Hu's attention to China's record on human rights as well.

Both sides of politics have spouted much nonsense over 'Asian values'. Usually this comes down to an implicitly racist theory that Asian governments should be forgiven the grossest violations of human rights for cultural reasons.

That attitude drove both Labor and the Coalition to decorously avert their eyes from genocide in East Timor for a quarter of a century in the name of cultural sensitivities.

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