HONG KONG — Kevin Rudd, the non-Chinese world’s first Chinese-speaking prime minister, has dealt a lethal blow to a budding “Asian Arc of Democracy” that was actively pushed by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a notion that appeared designed to isolate Beijing.

Instead, Australia has decided to improve relations with China and has just launched the first “strategic dialogue” between the two countries with new Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi.

During the bilateral strategic meeting, Smith informed Yang that Australia would no longer participate in the quadrilateral strategic dialogue involving the United States, Japan and India.

“One of the things that caused China concern last year was a meeting of that strategic dialogue,” Smith told a press conference after meeting Yang. “I indicated when I was in Japan that Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature.”

The former government of John Howard participated in the inaugural meeting of the “Quad” last May in Manila, after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney urged Australia to take part. Subsequently, China sent diplomatic notes to all four countries seeking clarification of the development. The inaugural meeting took place a month after Japan, India and the U.S. conducted their first joint naval drills in the Pacific Ocean, stirring speculation that a NATO-style alliance in the Pacific was in the making.

The Rudd administration has reaffirmed the importance of Australia’s relationship with Japan, but Rudd, as leader of the opposition, was not in favor of a formal defense accord between the two countries signed last March. Australia, however, has affirmed its alliance with the U.S. as well as the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue involving Australia, Japan and the U.S.

Where India is concerned, Australia recently reversed the Howard government’s decision to sell uranium to that country. Clearly, Australia has moved China up in its hierarchy of relations.

Looking back, it seems that the quadripartite relationship inaugurated last May was an aberration, since it was not really in accord with Australian, Indian or even American policy. At the time, Japan, fearful of its future relationship with China, was the only enthusiastic supporter of the idea.

Now, without Australia, it seems unlikely that the remaining countries will continue with the idea. Besides, Abe has now been succeeded by Yasuo Fukuda, who is emphasizing friendship with China rather than confrontation.

After Abe’s resignation last September, Fukuda defeated Taro Aso, a hawk in the Abe administration who was an enthusiastic supporter of the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity,” which comprised the “Asian Arc of Democracy.”

In fact, as Aso described it, the arc would include the countries of Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, the Korean Peninsula and Mongolia — virtually all the countries on China’s periphery, except China itself.

Australia’s economic and political relations with China have become increasingly important, and the country does not want to jeopardize them by being dragged into other people’s quarrels with China, such as Japan’s. Even under the Howard administration, Australia made clear that it did not want to be drawn into a conflict with China over Taiwan simply because of the U.S.-Australia alliance.

Fukuda has given good relations with China a high priority. In fact, he sent Lunar New Year greetings to the Chinese community in Japan as well as all Chinese people around the world, the first time that a Japanese prime minister has ever done this.

Now, with the change in government in Australia, Beijing has even less to worry about an alliance that potentially could have encircled and contained China, even if it was innocently called an “alliance of values.”

While hawks within the Bush administration favored a concert of democracies, other officials were lukewarm toward the idea.

Morton Abramowitz, a former official and still an influential member of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, publicly urged Washington and Tokyo not to pursue an “alliance of values” with Australia and India, calling this “an anti-Chinese move.”

In fact, the whole Quad concept seems to have been an idea whose time was long past. Even those governments that took part in the initial meeting last year did not really have their hearts in it. The fact is that few wanted a confrontational approach vis-a-vis China in the 1990s, let alone today.

With Australia pulling out and with no one left to push the idea vigorously, the Quad is likely to simply wither away, with few mourning its death.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (Frank.ching@gmail.com.)

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