A swing and a miss
A fleeting overnight stay in Canberra or the chance to secure your place in history? Quite. Presidential decisions do not come much easier than the last-minute postponement of Barack Obama's visit to Australia and Indonesia earlier this month, so that he could remain in Washington to focus on minting his health care proposals into law. As the Vice-President Joe Biden rather famously put it, in language that could easily have slipped from the lips of an Australian politician, it really was a very big deal.
According to the news diary here, March was supposed to be dominated by the visit from Barack Obama, the scheduling of which had delighted the Australian government because it had come so early in a first-term presidency. With an election in the offing, Kevin Rudd could have paraded a leader with whom he has struck up a genuinely close personal relationship - a friendship which has added weight to Australia's diplomatic punch.
As it turned out, many commentators have taken the White House's decision to rearrange the trip Down Under as evidence of Canberra's diplomatic irrelevance, especially since the trip had already been downgraded to a one-night, one-city stay. Unhelpfully for the Rudd government, the change in flight plan for Air Force One came on the back of the postponement of a visit from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates because of the Haiti earthquake. Again, the impression here was that Washington did not seemed overly concerned about disappointing Canberra, and the story was of how Australia had been slighted.
This was also supposed to be the month that Australia's influence also became manifest in Beijing over the Stern Hu trial. Australian diplomats started March hoping that they would have gained full, unfettered access to the entire trial, and that the court in Shanghai court would have veered on the side of leniency in its sentencing. After all, as soon as it became clear that Stern Hu would face trial, the working assumption here has been that he would be found guilty.
However, even though Kevin Rudd said that the world would be watching, China did not seem overly perturbed about obscuring the view. Then came then verdict, which the Australian government has publicly said was unnecessarily severe. Both are setbacks for Australian diplomacy, an area where the country has in recent times taken great pride in punching above its weight.
Of course, the postponement of the Obama visit sits rather unhappily with the diplomatic wrangling in the run-up to the Stern Hu trial, which the news diary had also suggested would be a big story of the month. Canberra wanted consular access to the entire trial. Beijing refused point blank. Again, the commentary has been about how easy it is to disappoint Australia, or, in this instance, to say no.
So imagine for a moment how March might have unfolded. President Obama would have come to Canberra, delivered a speech extolling the mutual benefits of the ANZUS alliance and shown, through his body language and kind words, how much he values his chummy relationship with Kevin Rudd.
Let's also imagine that Beijing had granted Australia's request for complete access to the trial of Stern Hu, and the court in Shanghai had handed down a lighter sentence.
Then we might have been talking about how Australia had entered a new era of regional influence at the beginning of the Asia-Pacific century. Of how it had new-found clout in Washington and new-found leverage in Beijing.
As March came to an end, we could have been talking about the enhanced power of Australia's diplomatic punch - a punch that was becoming commensurate with the country's growing strategic influence in this corner of the world. Instead, we saw a presidential no-show and a further souring of the relationship with Beijing - a diplomatic swing and a miss.