The Age

By Hamish McDonald

Personal chemistry is the extra ingredient in foreign relations, which is perhaps why there is so much emphasis on summits and other encounters between top leaders. It is just so hard to be rude to someone whom you know and have to see every year at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting or the G20.

John Howard, for example, came to office with a tough approach to China (it was just after the missile crisis over Taiwan), and got a freeze from the then Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, in return. Towards the end of his prime ministership, on a visit to Beijing, Howard was rushing forward to greet a newly retired Jiang as ''my old friend!''.

Julia Gillard heads to China at the end of this month with very little personal chemistry working for her - and quite a few things that could prompt Chinese coolness.

On the personal front, she is a new and untested quantity for the Chinese. The narrowness of her majority in Parliament, the unsettled state of public opinion polls, the swing from Labor in NSW, put question marks over political longevity - though to be sure, the Chinese Communist Party is now fixated on its own leadership rotation, only 18 months away.

There will be mixed feelings about her dispatch of Kevin Rudd as prime minister. Rudd had irked the Chinese leadership initially with his cleverness, inserting human rights messages into the public dialogue, and his government's antagonistic defence white paper. But after three years in office, he might have become less unsettling. Chinese people were generally upset by the harsh removal of the West's first Chinese-speaking head of government - with a direct effect on the Labor Party vote among Chinese-Australians.

China's diplomats in Canberra will have also reported on how the appointment of a new Australian ambassador in Beijing, Frances Adamson, may have reflected a contest between Gillard and Rudd, and raised a question over whether the Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister are working as one in this key foreign policy area.

In the content of the diplomatic agenda, there are the usual irritants for the Chinese - the exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer has been here again, the Dalai Lama is coming in June - and for Canberra - more arrests of Chinese-Australians in murky circumstances.

But the toughest issues for Gillard get right to the heart of Australia's relationship with China. She goes to Beijing only a few weeks after her remarkably fulsome address to the US Congress, pledging eternal mateship in general and positing Australia, in particular, as one of the ''anchors of regional stability'' in Asia along with Japan and South Korea.

This was turned into the news lead of Gillard's Washington visit: her offering Australia as a base to ''counter the rise of China''. Put less crudely by Geoffrey Garrett, the head of the University of Sydney's US studies centre: ''If the 20th-century Australia-US alliance was born of the need to contain the Soviet Union, one central focus of the 21st-century alliance will surely be China.''

Of course, wise heads in America and Australia see it more broadly than that. ''The key challenge,'' Garrett adds, ''is to maximise the benefits for all of China's rise while working to ensure that China becomes a responsible global stakeholder and to insure against the risk that it does not.''

Yet the ''responsible stakeholder'' invitation, first offered to China in 2004 in a speech by the then US deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, is looking a bit superseded, and condescending.

A Quarterly Essay last year by the Australian former deputy defence secretary Hugh White suggested the US anticipate China's rise to strategic and economic parity or even pre-eminence by moving to ''share power''.

In January, a conference at the University of Virginia's Miller centre for public affairs including two former US defence chiefs in the Pacific, admirals Timothy Keating and Joseph Prueher (the latter a former ambassador to Beijing), concluded that ''the US and China should conduct negotiations as equals'' - getting together as ''major sovereign players on the world stage''.

''Both should come to the table with an attitude of collaboration, instead of an adversarial one based around counter demands and ultimatums,'' the panel recommended. Intriguingly, these two admirals joined a suggestion for a ''fresh look'' at the Taiwan issue, including steps to get out of a ''vicious circle'' of arms sales to Taiwan.

Since Gough Whitlam's time, Australian diplomacy has reached out and engaged with China, often ahead of the US. Now the Chinese might be wondering if Gillard is drawing back under American coat-tails. She will not be helped by some of the WikiLeaks cables showing China still has to earn trust even on the economic front.

One US embassy cable quotes a key Treasury official who was handling foreign investment approvals explaining how Treasurer Wayne Swan's changes to approval rules in 2009, ostensibly relaxing criteria for scrutiny, were actually ''a stricter policy aimed squarely at China's growing influence in Australia's resources sector''. Based on a briefing by the official, Patrick Colmer, US diplomats reported that the government privately wished to ''pose new disincentives for larger-scale Chinese investments''.

Another leaked cable quoted the BHP Billiton chief, Marius Kloppers, telling the American consul-general in Melbourne that the government had a ''real fear'' of Beijing gaining control of Australian resources. ''Australia does not want to become an open pit in the southernmost province of China,'' Kloppers was quoted as saying, and the government was ''drawing a line in the sand to keep Chinese state-owned firms from owning the larger mining companies such as Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Woodside''.

By now, Gillard and Swan might be wondering if Chinese owners at BHP and Rio wouldn't be preferable, given the fight over the mining super-profits tax. But when she heads into the Great Hall of the People this month to meet China's top Communists, she cannot assume any favourable chemistry.