Kevin Rudd: Australia’s China Policy Requires a ‘Realist Premise’

“China ultimately respects strength and is contemptuous of weakness,” the former Australian prime minister said.

By , the executive editor at Foreign Policy.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd greets then-federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd greets then-federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd greets then-federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese during the Australian Labor Party election campaign launch in Perth, Australia, on May 1. Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

Australians voted for change on May 21 in a historic election that replaced almost a decade of conservative rule with Anthony Albanese and an Australian Labor Party-led government. Under Albanese’s predecessor, Scott Morrison, relations between Australia and its biggest trading partner, China, had reached a low ebb. Ten days into the election campaign, China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands that seemed to catch both Australia and the United States off guard, raising fears that China could build a military base on the strategically important archipelago just 1,000 miles off Australia’s northeast coast. Morrison’s rhetoric toward China had become increasingly strident, and his defense minister, Peter Dutton, had told Australians to “prepare for war” this year. But Albanese has taken a defiant tone on China. Joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) summit in Tokyo one day into office, Albanese called a notorious list of demands by Beijing in 2021 “entirely inappropriate” and said sanctions on Australian products would have to be lifted for the relationship to move forward.

How will new leadership in Canberra impact China’s influence in the region, including in the Solomon Islands? And what should Australia be doing to further its own security goals in the Pacific? There is no one better placed to answer these questions than former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who spoke with Foreign Policy from New York. Rudd is now president and CEO of Asia Society. He is also the author of The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the U.S. and Xi Jinping’s China.

The following conversation was conducted for FP LiveForeign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on Thursday, May 19. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Australians voted for change on May 21 in a historic election that replaced almost a decade of conservative rule with Anthony Albanese and an Australian Labor Party-led government. Under Albanese’s predecessor, Scott Morrison, relations between Australia and its biggest trading partner, China, had reached a low ebb. Ten days into the election campaign, China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands that seemed to catch both Australia and the United States off guard, raising fears that China could build a military base on the strategically important archipelago just 1,000 miles off Australia’s northeast coast. Morrison’s rhetoric toward China had become increasingly strident, and his defense minister, Peter Dutton, had told Australians to “prepare for war” this year. But Albanese has taken a defiant tone on China. Joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) summit in Tokyo one day into office, Albanese called a notorious list of demands by Beijing in 2021 “entirely inappropriate” and said sanctions on Australian products would have to be lifted for the relationship to move forward.

How will new leadership in Canberra impact China’s influence in the region, including in the Solomon Islands? And what should Australia be doing to further its own security goals in the Pacific? There is no one better placed to answer these questions than former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who spoke with Foreign Policy from New York. Rudd is now president and CEO of Asia Society. He is also the author of The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the U.S. and Xi Jinpings China.

The following conversation was conducted for FP LiveForeign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on Thursday, May 19. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Mr. Rudd, Anthony Albanese took a tough stance on China at his first Quad meeting. Do you agree that the removal of sanctions, as Albanese demanded, is a necessary first step to restoring harmony in this relationship?

Kevin Rudd: China took it into its head during the period of the last government to think that it was wise to do two things: one, to initiate a series of economic sanctions against Australia, which have now extended to punitive tariffs on something like 20 to 25 percent of Australias total exports to China, a cost to Australian exports somewhere in the tens of billions of dollars, in the hope that the Australian government, either opposition or the then-governing party, would somehow capitulate to Chinas foreign-policy asks. And then secondly, China set about issuing what became this remarkable document called “Chinas 14 demands,” which covers the full spectrum of what Beijing disapproves of in terms of Australian foreign policy anywhere from the South China Sea to a position on Huawei. I think Prime Minister Albanese is absolutely right to say that Australia will always welcome a more stable relationship with China, but it would not be from a position whereby these preconditions established by China remain in place.

FP: Just 10 days into the campaign, China signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands that seemed to take a lot of people by surprise. How significant is the deal, and what do you think is an appropriate response by the U.S. to this maneuver by China?

KR: It is a significant development. I described it in recent times as the largest in foreign- and security policy failures by an Australian governing party—that is, the previous Australian government—to have so alienated our traditional friends and partners of the Pacific Island countries [for] this [to have become] a possibility. And that remains my view.

So for the future, the challenge I think for an incoming Australian government is to rebuild the aid relationship: to synchronize Australias policies on climate change with the existential impact that climate change has for countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, as well as the Marshall Islands—which are low lying—and other Pacific Island countries with climate change together with, frankly, redeploying the classical instruments of regular diplomacy.

FP: Do you think that the U.S. needs to put forward bigger military presence in the region, as China has been doing with the Solomon deal?

KR: The United States has long been active in the Pacific Island countries. But I think the level of American disquiet over what I would describe as an Australian diplomatic failure under the previous Australian government and the case of its relationship with the Solomon Islands and other countries as well is reflected in the high-level visits by the [U.S.] president’s special advisor on Asia, Kurt Campbell, to Honiara, [capital of the Solomon Islands], during the course actually of the Australian election campaign. I think what happened in Honiara also caught the United States by surprise. I think you are therefore going to see a significant uptick in United States diplomatic engagement with the countries of the Southwest Pacific. I expect youll see a more coordinated engagement between Australia and New Zealand on this front as well.

I think if there is a continued challenge and opportunity for the militaries of Australia and New Zealand, [and] then the United States, is this—something which Ive emphasized since I first took office myself back in 2007: working with Pacific Island countries to ensure the integrity of the special economic zones and the fisheries which remains their principal source of export and ensuring that they are kept free from encroachment and from poachers from elsewhere in the world.

FP: U.S. President Joe Biden made headlines this week when he said the U.S. would respond militarily if China attempted to take Taiwan by force. Do you think that kind of red line drawing is helpful?

KR: I think the U.S. president has made very plain where the sentiment of the United States body politic lies, and that is to act in defense of Taiwans interests.

The administration has been keen to reaffirm the ultimate posture of whats called in the diplomatic trade “strategic ambiguity” in dealing with particular scenarios, which may arise in the Taiwan Straits context because we often think theres only a single scenario—that is, what it used to be described as in the old days as, “the million-man swim” (that is, [the] amphibious operation against Taiwan from the mainland). There are multiple scenarios. There are trade blockades. There are trade embargoes and the possibility of them by China against Taiwan. There are a series of other scenarios as well, including massive cyberattacks against Taiwans domestic, economic, and political infrastructure and a range of other military scenarios short of a full-blown invasion. For example, a Chinese military action against Taiwans offshore islands, Kinmen and Matsu, not far from the Fujian coast.

So I think when the administration underlines the fact that there is no change in terms of the ultimate posture of American “strategic ambiguity” as to what it would do under individual circumstances, I think its quite plain that President Biden is sending a very clear-cut message to Beijing that the United States would not be sitting on its hands.

FP: In your view, how does Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine change how Australia should be handling China and repairing relations between the countries?

KR: We understand that China ultimately respects strength and is contemptuous of weakness. And therefore, our view, both nationally and in partnership with our friends and allies, has been to anchor our relationship with Beijing on those sorts of realist premises. If you like, whats happened in the Russian Federation and the invasion of Ukraine has simply added further light to that underlying strategic reality, which has been long existing.

Amelia Lester is the executive editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ThatAmelia

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