Kevin Rudd has Friend in Clinton

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Hillary Clinton has done Kevin Rudd the biggest favour she could possibly do for him on the eve of her visit to Australia for the 25th-anniversary AUSMIN talks in Canberra on Monday.

The US Secretary of State has hailed the Australian Prime Minister as a leader in Asia and endorsed his efforts at reform and renovation of the regional institutions of the Asia Pacific.

Just at the moment, the Rudd foreign policy could do with such a favour, given the troubles Canberra is having with India over the attacks on students, Japan over whaling and China over jailed Rio executive Stern Hu.

Oh, and don't forget Singapore's steadfast opposition to the Rudd plan for an Asia Pacific community stretching from Vladivostok to Delhi, and dealing with both trade and economics on the one hand, and security on the other.

Rudd was the only international statesman Clinton mentioned by name.

She also hailed Australia as a traditional leader in the region.

But her speech was much more than just a statement of support for Rudd.

She set out the strong credentials the Obama administration is building up for its Asia policy.

Barack Obama has started well in Asia. He has a very good Asia team and they are ambitious for US policy in the region.

They have a clear-eyed view of Asia as embodying critical US interests and also as a region where US policy can achieve positive results.

In truth, the Obama administration will be doing well if it can match the record of the Bush administration in Asia, despite the implication in Clinton's words - "America is back in Asia" - that there was something to repair.

As Rudd himself has often stated, and as the Obama team understands, Asia was an area of tremendous success for the Bush administration.

It negotiated a nuclear deal with India, it negotiated a more reciprocal alliance with Japan, it ran China relations steadily and with great deftness, it achieved excellent counter-terrorism cooperation with Indonesia and The Philippines and it concluded a free trade agreement with Singapore, and got it passed by congress.

So far, the Obama administration approaches no such achievement.

But it is very early days, and Obama's excellent and well-led Asia team knows exactly what it is doing.

The most important part of Clinton's speech will be missed by many commentators - it was the reaffirmation of the absolute centrality of the US alliance system in Asia, to both the US and to the Asia Pacific region. This confirms the traditional and sober strategic outlook of the Obama administration on Asian security.

Also encouraging in Clinton's speech was the US commitment to be fully engaged in the process of reforming Asia's multilateral institutions.

This was the only area in Asia of sub-par performance by the Bush administration.

There was really only one culprit in this regard for the Bush team, and that was Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state in the second Bush administration.

She more or less refused to turn up to the ASEAN Regional Forum meetings, which was terrible PR for the Bush administration. In this particular delinquency, she did the Bush administration a grave disservice, and in PR terms undid much of its good work in Southeast Asia.

This was in marked contrast to her predecessor, Colin Powell, secretary of state for the first four years of the Bush presidency. He attended all the ARF meetings on his watch, just as George W. Bush himself attended all the APEC heads of government meetings, even when they were lame; when, just after 9/11, he had plenty else on his plate; or when they were politically difficult, as in being in China at sensitive times.

Clinton has attended her first ARF meeting and pledged in this speech that she will be there every year.

She is right to say that in diplomacy, just turning up means a lot.

The US under Obama has also signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Co-operation. This treaty is devoid of substance or meaning, but signing it was a gift of face for ASEAN, a sign of respect and commitment.

Clinton also repeated an earlier commitment of Obama that the US would look at how it can be involved productively in the East Asia Summit. If the US were to join the EAS, it would commit the President to two Asian summits a year - that and APEC.

Clinton flagged that the region's meetings need some rationalisation, and one common proposal is for APEC and East Asian summits to be held back to back.

But the US joining the EAS would fulfil Rudd's vision of an inclusive Asia Pacific Community.

The very fact that both Clinton and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and a raft of the most senior US military and State Department leadership, are coming to Australia for AUSMIN is a tribute to the seriousness with which the Obama administration views the Australia relationship.

Only once in the term of the Bush administration did both the secretary of state and the secretary of defence, at the time Powell and Donald Rumsfeld respectively, come to Australia for an AUSMIN meeting.

These Americans, who share interests, values and a vision for the region with Australia, will be wholly welcome in Canberra.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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