KEVIN Rudd has suggested the United States "tighten things up a bit" following the publishing by WikiLeaks of confidential US documents.
The Foreign Minister also said Australia had a “robust” diplomatic relationship with China and would not contact Beijing to smooth over relations following the embarrassing leaking of a conversation he had with Hillary Clinton.
Mr Rudd was responding to revelations that while prime minister he warned the US Secretary of State in March 2009 that the world must be prepared to “deploy force” if China could not be integrated into the international system.
He said today such releases of diplomatic material could occur at any time and without prior warning from the United States.
“I think foreign ministers around the world from countries of all sorts of political traditions are scratching their heads a bit about this one at the moment. And I'm just being frank with you,” Mr Rudd said in Canberra.
“What now happens? I think rule number one for our friends in the United States is `how do you tighten things up a bit?”'“You've had recent reports concerning heads of government being accused of corruption, of being associated with the mafia, of.....urging the United States to go to war against particular countries....... it does create a separate and new dynamic,” he said.
Mr Rudd also said diplomacy was a “robust” business and leaked documents were “part and parcel of the business of the relations between states”.
While Mr Rudd repeatedly declined to comment on the content or the accuracy of the leaked documents, he defended Australia's posture towards China.
“The job of Australian foreign policy and security policy is to make provision for the long term defence of Australia's national security interest, as do all nation states,” he said.
“The business of diplomacy is not just to roll over and have your tummy tickled from time to time by the Chinese or anybody else. The business of diplomacy is to be firm about your national interests and prosecute them accordingly.”
Mr Rudd said Australian foreign policy toward China was balanced and had been “consistent over many years”.
On the one hand, Australia had an extensive economic relationship with China and was engaged in a range of initiatives aimed at introducing Beijing “more and more” to the world's multilateral institutions.
But Mr Rudd said that at the same time, “we've also been very plain with our Chinese friends over the last three years that where we have a disagreement, that we will make that disagreement very plain and be firm about standing up for our values and our interests”.
“This is the sort of balanced policy toward China which I have long supported,” he said.
Mr Rudd said he thought it was in the overwhelming interest of both the US and China for there to be a peaceful future and it was the job of Australia and other regional countries to help prevent any future conflict.
Asked whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had broken any Australian law, Mr Rudd said Australia was “a nation of laws” and would act according to “due process”.
“It's not for us to comment on the legality or otherwise of any individual actions. It's for the proper investigatory and prosecutorial bodies to do that.”
China experts, meanwhile, have played down any diplomatic blowback arising from Mr Rudd's comments.
Dr Ron Huisken, a security analyst and China expert from the Australian National University said the leaked cable confirmed what was already known about Mr Rudd's view of China and reinforced Australia's “close and comfortable” relationship with the United States.
He also said the context of the cable was important, stressing it was an account of a frank exchange over lunch and that it was written from the US perspective.
“It's not a discussion which you would call a policy development discussion or policy reconciliation discussion,” he said.
Whether Mr Rudd used anything like the “precise words” in the cable was also “very doubtful”.
Dr Huisken suggested Mr Rudd was saying that, in effect, China “certainly had the capacity and appears to have the interest to use long range conventional military capabilities that it may be tempted to use coercively in the future and that it would be sensible on the part of other states in the region to bear that in mind and to ensure that they have countervailing military capabilities”.
Professor Hugh White, head of the ANU's strategic and defence studies centre who has recently written a quarterly essay on China's challenge to American power, also cast doubt on whether the cable represented an accurate reflection of what Mr Rudd said.
“(But) on the assumption it's a fair and accurate report of what Rudd said, a core point is that what Rudd said won't surprise the Chinese, nor will it surprise the Americans,” he told The Australian Online.
Rory Medcalf, international security program director at the Lowy Institute, said Mr Rudd's comments were “consistent with the tone of the defence white paper”.
He said Mr Rudd was “certainly was not encouraging some aggressively forceful response to China”.
“He was reminding the US allies in the region to have no illusions about the possibility there might be conflict in the future.”
Attorney-General Robert McClelland earlier condemned the release of the confidential cables as “grossly irresponsible”, and which would put the safety and even the lives of people helping western governments at risk.
The Coalition said it was troubled by the revelations, and called on Julia Gillard to clarify whether she supported Mr Rudd's comments.
But while declining to comment on the specifics of the cable, the first released by WikiLeaks in which Australia features prominently, Mr McClelland insisted Australia's strong relationship with China would continue.
“We have a very strong relationship with the Chinese government and the people of China, a strong business relationship, strong diplomatic relationships, strong government-to-government relationships, and that arrangement will continue,” he said.
Mr McClelland said the Australian Federal Police was investigating the release of the cable.
However he predicted that if criminal charges were brought against WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, it would likely happen in the United States, the source country for the diplomatic cables.
Australia would help the US government investigate the leaks.
But while the government said the release of the Rudd cable would not damage relations with China, some of the other 250,000-plus cables leaked through the website could put people's lives in danger.
“It is grossly irresponsible of an organisation to even contemplate publishing such information. Free speech is one thing, we all respect that, but we also respect the freedom and rights of people to live without fear,” Mr McClelland said.
He said it was “fair enough” that media outlets had published embarrassing material, but added: “I would again just caution people to come back and really see what's going on here.
“There is every prospect that national security sensitive information will be published that will actually prejudice the safety of individuals who have done nothing more and nothing less than provide information to assist law enforcement and security agencies whose task is to protect our communities.”
Mc McClelland also hit back at suggestions most recently made by Mr Assange's London-based lawyer that the WikiLeaks founder had not received Australian consular assistance over sex charges he faces in Sweden.
Mr Assange is entitled to assistance from the Australian government, Mr McClelland said, but given the countries involved that was unlikely to be necessary.
“Mr Assange as an Australian citizen is entitled to consular assistance overseas in respect to any criminal allegations he may face. He is entitled to procedural fairness in respect to those allegations,” he said.
And while Mr Assange was welcome to return to Australia, the Attorney-General warned: “Australia has obligations pursuant to agreements that we have signed that ensure we will provide mutual assistance to countries that are investigating criminal law enforcement matters”