The Sydney Morning Herald

By Geoffrey Garrett

The realities of WikiLeaks have arrived in Australia following the publication of the American precis of a meeting between then prime minister Kevin Rudd and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

The secret world of diplomacy, now uncovered, confirms widely held suspicions of just how clear and pragmatic governments are about their national interests, using words they would never utter nor admit to in public. But the revelations are also generating problems that go well beyond the personal discomfort of diplomats into creating real new challenges for foreign policy.

The juicy details of the Clinton-Rudd China chat have captured all the headlines. There is little new for close watchers of the Australia-China-US triangle. Having more people understand the realities of these relationships is probably good.

But the revelations will create headaches for Rudd and Australia. Managing relations with China - the country's meal ticket but also the only possible real threat to its security - was already a hard ask. It has just become considerably harder. The Chinese leadership has always allowed international relations to mask frank and pointed talk behind closed doors, as long as its interlocutors are long on banal and benign platitudes in public.

One can only hope that the Chinese leadership will be sufficiently cool-headed to blame the messenger, Australia's new bad boy, Julian Assange, rather than the message sent by the nation's new Foreign Minister, Rudd. And Australia should also take comfort that its relations with the US are so close that conversations like those between Rudd and Clinton can happen. In fact, the leaked cable is no doubt only the tip of the diplomatic iceberg.

So what is in the cable? Clinton apparently opened the bidding by asking Rudd of China: ''How do you deal toughly with your banker?''

''Banker'', of course, is more what China is for the US, with Chinese greenback and Treasury bill holdings in the thousands of billions balanced by the fact that America is Chinese manufacturing's ''customer of last resort''.

''Co-dependent'' might have been more accurate but less polite shorthand for the Australia-China relationship, given China's insatiable appetite for Australian minerals and the invaluable role this played in Australia's escape from the ravages of the global financial crisis.

Rudd rose to the ''tough'' call by describing himself as a ''brutal realist on China''. He then defined brutal realism as ''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''.

This is a concise rendering of the Rudd government's foreign policy from the Asia Pacific community to the submarine build-up in last year's Defence white paper. It is also an accurate summary of the Obama administration's policy for the Asia Pacific: reinforcing its traditional alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea; bringing new friends like India, Indonesia and Vietnam into the tent; and supporting pro-democracy and pro-markets regional institutions such as APEC and the emerging Trans Pacific Partnership.

The goal for Australia and the US is the same. Maximise the economic benefits of China's rise. Create regional partnerships, bilateral and multilateral, that are designed to socialise China into the club but that also act as an insurance policy should China go in the opposite direction.

Rudd was quick to acknowledge the real challenges to getting China to act the way the US and Australia want. He said that China's ''reactions on Taiwan were sub-rational and deeply emotional, whereas hard-line policies on Tibet were crafted to send clear messages to other ethnic minorities''.

Rudd was, of course, right. It is an article of faith in China, from the politburo to the street, that Taiwan is part of China. What Rudd didn't say is also well known - so long as no one rocks the boat, deep economic integration between Taiwan and the mainland decreases both the relevance of the legal formalism and the chances that the Taiwan issue will blow up.

Rudd was also right that being tough on Tibet is a Chinese proxy for all the territorial and ethnic challenges China faces with large minority populations in far flung parts of its massive multi-ethnic land mass. Beyond its Han core, they border countries with which the minorities share lots of culture and history. Think Central Asia, as much if not more than Tibet.

The rub for Rudd is that Western leaders are not supposed to say any of this in public. Pressure in private is okay with the Chinese government. So, too, is some degree of posturing for domestic purposes for countries such as Australia and the US that have very different values regarding human rights and sovereign self-determination. But calling China on the carpet in public is just not on.

As a result, the Foreign Minister will have his work cut out rebuilding trust with the Chinese leadership, all the more so because the Chinese were already sceptical since the abortive Chinalco bid for a part of Rio Tinto and the Stern Hu saga. There have also been personal missteps by Rudd including losing his temper in a foul-mouthed tirade at Chinese intransigence in Copenhagen and his perceived snub of the Chinese Ambassador in Britain.

The WikiLeaks cables are priceless foreign policy porn. But they have now raised the stakes for Australia. The Foreign Minister will need to use all of his vaunted diplomatic skills to rise to the challenge.

Professor Geoffrey Garrett is chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.