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The China syndrome

Nick Bryant | 09:38 UK time, Monday, 6 April 2009

It seems that virtually every front page story about Australia these days has some kind of Chinese dimension.

Only last week, we reported from the Western Australian communities of Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun, which have been completely devastated by the decision of BHP Billiton to shut down its nickel mine after just eight months of operation.

BHP Billiton nickel mineThe main reason? The slowdown in China has led to a collapse in the price of nickel.

When Pacific Brands recently shed 1,850 Australian jobs it was because the company decided it was cheaper to make its underwear and smalls in China.

Defence Secretary Joel Fitzgibbon has been fighting off calls for the resignation because he accepted undisclosed gifts from a wealthy Chinese businesswoman, Helen Liu.

Then there's the decision pending from the Australian government over whether China's state-owned Chinalco should be allowed to take its holding of the mining giant, Rio Tinto, up to 18%.

At a whopping Aus$23bn (£11bn), this would represent China's biggest single foreign direct investment and lay down another milestone in Beijing's inexorable rise.

Then there is the related story of how Chinese spies allegedly tried to hack into Rio Tinto's computers during the initial stages of Chinalco's bid, and also allegedly targeted the phone and computer of Kevin Rudd during a trip to the Beijing Olympics.

For the first time, of course, Australia is being led by a Sinophile, who managed ahead of the last election to parlay his fluency in Mandarin into favourable headlines and poll numbers.

Kevin RuddCuriously, the pollsters identify two big spikes in Rudd's approval ratings in the run-up to the election: the first, after it was reported that he'd had a drunken night out at a New York strip club; and second, when he addressed the Chinese delegation at the APEC Summit in flawless Mandarin just weeks before the 2007 election.

Now, though, there is a fear in the prime minister's office that his relationship with Beijing could turn into a liability.

How else do you explain the decision by his image makers and media handlers not to tell Australian reporters about his pre-G20 meeting at The Lodge in Canberra with Li Changchun, who serves as the Chinese propaganda minister?

And what about his reluctance to sit next to the Chinese ambassador to London during a BBC interview in London last month, which Mr Rudd suggested was simply because he wanted to sit alongside his old mate, David Milliband, the British Foreign Secretary.

Admittedly, I've heard of speed-dial diplomacy, but sofa diplomacy?

Seemingly, the Australian prime minister is desperate to avoid being tagged "the Manchurian Candidate".

"Rudd's Manchu Muddle" is how the Sydney Morning Herald characterised things over the weekend.

No doubt there will be those who think it makes perfect sense for the Rudd government to realign and recalibrate its foreign policy to reflect the growing economic and diplomatic power of China. There will be others who worry that he's getting too close.

And should people here be worried that Kevin Rudd's meeting with the Chinese propaganda minister made headlines in the Chinese media but was the subject of what was essentially a media black-out here in Australia?

+ A final word for the time being on Kevin Rudd - I promise. Moresby-Parks asks why I haven't yet been to Nambour, the prime minister's birthplace? The answer is that I have been there, and was disappointed by the lack of tributes to the town's favourite son.

This, after all, is the land of the Big Banana and other over-sized landmarks. So perhaps the town centre could be enlivened by a giant pair of titanium spectacles or even a mound of ear wax? Other suggestions are more than welcome...

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