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Tighter Australia-China ties worry Asian neighbors

India and Japan are wary as political, economic links strengthen amid a mining boom.

By Correspondent / June 7, 2008

In Touch: Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, second from left, met with senior Chinese official Wu Bangguo (second from right) in Beijing in April.

Takanori Sekine/REUTERS


Sydney, Australia

It is a match made in heaven – China's ravenous appetite for raw materials and the billions of dollars' worth of minerals lurking beneath the rust-red dirt of Australia's vast outback.

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Australians are growing rich, in large part because of the Chinese economic juggernaut, which has sent property prices soaring, propelled the stock exchange to new heights, and plunged unemployment to its lowest level in more than 30 years.

But as economic and political ties between Canberra and Beijing strengthen on the back of the mining boom, alarm bells are ringing across other parts of Asia. India and Japan, in particular, feel that the Australians are paying far too much attention to China. Japan is acutely aware that last year it was eclipsed by China as Australia's top trading partner. And while Australia had strong trading ties with China under former Prime Minister John Howard, ties have ratcheted up under Kevin Rudd, the only Western leader who speaks fluent Mandarin.

An Australian announcement earlier this month that it was unilaterally abolishing a quadrilateral security dialogue with the United States, India, and Japan, went down badly in New Delhi and Tokyo.

"As far as the rest of Asia is concerned, Australia has taken a very strong pro-China tilt under this new government," says Richard Martin, managing director of IMA Asia, which analyzes international market trends. "The view in India and Japan and [South] Korea is that the Rudd government has been captured by the Chinese. They perceive us as having taken a giant step toward China."

Mr. Rudd visited China, but no other Asian nation, on a recent global tour last month, which also took him to the US and Europe. Australia is increasingly "kowtowing" to the Chinese, a senior Indian former diplomat told The Australian newspaper. "We get the impression that Australian policy is becoming increasingly Sinocentric," said G. Parthasarathy.

An Indian strategic commentator, B. Raman, was blunter. "China, China, China, China, and more of China was the recurring theme of his speeches in the countries visited by Mr. Rudd," he wrote recently in India's Outlook magazine.

For all its intimacy, the Sino-Australian relationship is not without tensions. On his visit to China, Rudd gave a frank assessment of rights abuses in Tibet, telling a Chinese audience that there were "significant problems." And there are signs of growing unease in Australia about China's seemingly unstoppable ascendancy in the region.

When the Olympic torch relay arrived in Canberra last month, the capital was swamped by some 10,000 flag-waving Chinese, some of whom bullied pro-Tibet supporters. "Beijing suppressed freedom of expression in the heart of our democracy," The Australian wrote the next day.

Canberra is also nervous about Chinese corporations seeking to buy into Australian resources companies to secure future supplies of uranium, iron ore, bauxite, and other minerals.