time for little johnny to get off the fence

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    CANBERRA, Oct 24 AAP - Australia saw a big bit of its future
    today - a future glittering with gold, but beset by potential
    security and diplomatic minefields.
    Chinese President Hu Jintao, in his address to federal
    parliament, laid out a promise of almost unlimited economic benefit
    from close relations with his vast and burgeoning country.
    But his speech had a lot of steel inside the velvet euphemisms
    and, on Taiwan, a potential trap for Australia.
    With the United States pushing one way and the Chinese the
    other, Australia may need some fancy footwork, should Taiwan blow
    up, as it dances between the opposing demands of its great ally and
    the new colossus of its region.
    Mr Hu's speech was much more important, if at times harder to
    interpret, than President George W Bush's yesterday.
    This is understandable. Australia and America have an easy-going
    relationship largely based on instinctive understanding. Washington
    had nothing new to tell us.
    The Australia-China relationship, on the other hand, is one
    where mutual self-interest is chipping away at the great gulf
    erected by different histories, cultures, ideologies and notions
    about human rights.
    Mr Hu was laying down markers for how the relationship should
    develop. In essence, although he was much more oblique, it was a
    promise of almost unlimited mutual benefit, but keep your nose out
    of our business and don't get in our way over Taiwan.
    The figures explain the benefit. In seven years two-way trade
    has trebled to about $22.6 billion. China is now Australia's third
    biggest trading partner and with its economy on track to quadruple
    by 2020, it will become the biggest.
    The importance was underlined with Australia and China today
    signing an economic agreement which could be the precursor to a
    full free trade agreement, although that will need long and
    difficult negotiations.
    China also signed a new long-term $30 billion contract to buy
    Australian natural gas.
    It was against this background that Mr Hu said the two countries
    had highly complementary economies and the potential for economic
    cooperation was immense.
    "I am convinced that China and Australia will shape a
    relationship ... that makes our two peoples both winners," he said.
    Then came the qualifications, with the most important left to
    the end.
    He said Taiwan was an inalienable part of China and early
    reunification "the common aspiration and firm resolve of the entire
    Chinese people".
    This presumably means the vast Chinese diaspora, including the
    13 per cent of Chinese descent in Prime Minister John Howard's seat
    of Bennelong.
    Mr Hu said a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question served the
    interests of all countries in the region, including Australia.
    "The Chinese government and people look to Australia for a
    constructive role in China's peaceful reunification," he said.
    Yet less than 24 hours earlier Mr Bush said Australia and the US
    were working together with other countries in the region - with
    China not included on his list - to expand trade, fight terror and
    keep the peace in the Taiwan Straits.
    After noting that Mr Hu was also visiting, Mr Bush said:
    "Australia's agenda with China is the same as my country's."
    That may not always be so.
    More broadly, Mr Hu insisted that Australia respect China's
    He talked of the world being "like a rainbow of many colours".
    He also talked of China's road of reform, its development of
    grassroots democracy and regional ethnic autonomy (read Tibet).
    His opaque summary was: "We will continue to move forward our
    political restructuring in a vigorous and cautious manner as our
    national conditions merit, improve our democratic institutions and
    legal systems and build a socialist political civilisation."
    Mr Hu had much less to say about terror than Mr Bush, though he
    did hope for stronger counter-terrorism cooperation with Australia.
    Oddly, he didn't mention North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
    His call for disputes to be resolved peacefully through dialogue
    and cooperation and his support for the United Nations' central
    role in maintaining world peace was an indirect criticism of the
    Iraq war.
    Mr Howard knows the potential difficulties.
    In his carefully crafted speech of welcome he twice
    characterised the relationship as mature and practical.
    "We are different societies, we have different cultures, we have
    different traditions and we have different histories and no purpose
    is served in pretending otherwise," he said.
    Like Mr Hu, he left the American question to the end.
    "Our relationship with the US and then again our relationship
    with China will be extremely important to the stability of our
    region," Mr Howard said.
    "Our aim is to see calm and constructive dialogue between the US
    and China on those issues which might potentially cause tension
    between them and it will be Australia's aim as a nation which has
    different, but nonetheless close relationships with both of those
    nations, to promote that constructive and calm dialogue."
    That is a worthy, though large, ambition.
    AAP dw/sb/sjb/bwl
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