Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Media miss the news in first Aussie Wikileak

Oblivious to the fact that one of the dreaded new media was providing the scoop, the Australian newspaper reported on its front page today the first Wikileaks document to mention Australian officials was “Rudd’s plan to contain Beijing”. It’s hardly surprising The Australian would go data-mining for the thing that would most embarrass the Federal Government. But it’s hardly surprising too they got it wrong.

In the haste to follow a narrow political agenda, the Oz skipped over far more substantive elements to the story. Not only that, they also misquoted Rudd. The first line of Paul Maley’s front page story said Rudd had warned the world "must be prepared to deploy force” if China didn’t co-operate with the international community.

Compare this to what the cable actually said:
Rudd argued for “multilateral engagement with bilateral vigour” - integrating China effectively into the international community and allowing it to demonstrate greater responsibility, all while also preparing to deploy force if everything goes wrong.

Suggesting the world has a Plan Z for China that involves force is a long way from advocating it and certainly doesn't make it “Rudd’s plan”. It wasn’t just The Australian that took this slanted approach. The ABC took a similar tack with the material saying it was Rudd's "suggestion that the US use force against China in a worst case scenario”.

It was nothing of the sort and a poor way of using what was remarkable information put out in the public domain. The ABC added insult to injury by turning it into a petty domestic squabble by harvesting a meaningless quote from Julie Bishop about “disturbing reading”. Don't read it Julie, if it disturbs you.

Beyond this dross, the reportage ignores some major issues discussed when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Australian PM Kevin Rudd in Washington on 24 March 2009. Private Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and his army of Wikileaks helpers deserve praise for putting the material in the public domain nine years ahead of schedule. The cable about the meeting 09STATE30049 was marked “confidential” which is a mid-level security due to be released into the public domain in 2019.

The meeting talked about problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia, China was the biggest topic. Some of it was just polite platitudes with Rudd buttering up a valued friend but most of it was extremely useful and informative sharing of intel among allies.

Rudd told the Americans one possibility was the little-known philosophy of Kang Youwei which he said provided China’s idea of a harmonious world and could potentially fit in well with the West’s concept of responsible stakeholders. He also said Hu Jintao did not have the same level of power as former leader Jiang Zemin.
“No one person dominated Chinese leadership currently, although Hu’s likely replacement, Xi Jinping, had family ties to the military and might be able to rise above his colleagues,” Rudd told Clinton.

He also noticed an important distinction between China’s attitude to Taiwan and Tibet. With the former it was purely “sub-rational and deeply emotional” (because China has no intention of disturbing the status quo on Taiwan) while the more concrete hardline policies against the latter were designed not only to show who was boss in Llasa but to send a message to other minorities within mainland China.

Rudd also told Clinton the Standing Committee of the Politburo was the real decision-making body in China which then passed decisions to the State Council for implementation. He saw the new Asia Pacific Community initiative as a bulwark against any Chinese plans to issue an Asian Monroe Doctrine, but understood American reluctance to get involved in another international initiative. Rudd did say the 2009 Australian Defence White Paper was a response to Chinese power, something most people assumed but he could never admit publicly at the time.

In return for this information, Rudd wanted Washington’s intelligence on Russia so he could prepare for an upcoming meeting in Moscow. Conversation centred on the power struggle between Medvedev and Putin with both sides agreeing the President’s desire for “status and respect” could drive him closer to western thinking. But it was an outside chance.

On the AfPak situation, both parties agreed there was no point in “total success” in Afghanistan if Pakistan fell apart. Pakistan needed to drop its obsessive focus on India and attend to its western border problems.

What comes across in the cables I have read is not so much the “brutality and venality of US foreign policy” as its growing impotence. This is the reason the US is after Assange. It is the embarrassment he has caused them rather than the exposing of any international secrets that angers them so much.

The one phrase that sums up the problem was uttered by Hillary Clinton to Rudd in relation to China: “how do you deal toughly with your banker?” A damn good question and given China is our banker too, one Australian media should be asking. “Rudd’s embarrassment” has nothing on our media’s for missing the real news.

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