Former Australian PM and China expert Kevin Rudd has some stark forecasts in a Zoom interview with ANDREW ADONIS
Kevin Rudd is that rare beast: a diplomat and academic in politics. The former Australian prime minister is completing a doctorate on Xi Jinping at the University of Oxford. He has even been sighted queuing at the city’s kebab vans at the witching hour, just another student. A diplomat in China long before he entered politics, his doctorate is on the Chinese ruler’s ‘worldview’.
Rudd probably knows more about modern Chinese history and politics than all the world’s current presidents and prime ministers put together. ‘I understand the nature of the Chinese-Leninist state and what we’re dealing with here. This is not a bunch of Sunday school teachers,’ he warns. ‘This is a hardened Soviet-style Leninist regime but having fully embarked upon perestroika without glasnost. As a result you’ve ended up with an authoritarian state which has economically succeeded so far while maintaining political control’.
Perestroika was Gorbachev’s economic loosening of communism in the 1980s Soviet Union, glasnost his political opening up to abolish its one-party state. By ‘perestroika without glasnost’ Rudd means the policy since Mao’s death in 1976 of turning China into the workshop of the world while keeping its one-party state intact.
The decisive moment was the sending of the tanks into Tiananmen Square in 1989 to prevent a liberal revolution, a political crackdown which has intensified since Xi took over the leadership of the Communist Party in 2012. He is now seemingly emperor for life.
Indeed Xi is a new departure from his predecessors, needing a new response from the West even before Covid-19. This is Rudd’s key insight.
‘Under Xi Jinping we’ve seen a slower pace of economic reform and, on the question of opening up to the outside world, a more assertive China.’
In terms of Xi personally, through ‘anti-corruption campaigns’ and cyber-warfare ‘there has been a significant consolidation of power to the point where he’s not primus inter pares [‘first among equals’], he’s just primus’.
Rudd says Xi’s new authoritarianism was bearing down on China’s private sector before the pandemic. ‘In the trade war between China and the United States in 2018 and 2019 there was already a slowing of the economy because suddenly space given for the private sector to grow was constrained.’
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Rudd is contemptuous of Donald Trump, even when he thinks him right in highlighting Chinese failings. ‘One of Trump’s screw-ups over the Covid-19 crisis – to use an Australian technical term – has been frankly not realising that China was in great difficulty in January and February of this year and then to extend the hand of solidarity and say ‘we’re with you’ as this act of global leadership.’
The next steps between China, the US and Europe are utterly critical, says Rudd. ‘There has to be a global clearing of the facts here,’ he adds. His recommendation is that United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres should personally lead ‘a high-level panel of both Chinese and non-Chinese scientists with wide powers and terms of reference to get to the basis of this, so the Chinese will be confronted with what they got wrong’.
This urgent international review should be completed by the end of the year, with reforms to the World Health Organisation implemented immediately and the whole process completed within 12 months.
Xi has a strong interest in cooperating with such a panel, Rudd argues, because otherwise there will be no prospect of a return to trade and interchange with the West on anything like the previous basis, which would wreck the Chinese economy. Equally, Xi needs to be assured it’s not a Trumpian set-up to put China in the dock alone, as the wider international response and WHO also need to be under scrutiny.
He adds: ‘This is not just a CIA plot to humiliate China. The rest of us who don’t work with the CIA on a daily basis have a deep interest in understanding what’s the nature of this reality on the origins of the virus. I think, I hope, that is seeping through in Beijing.’
Rudd sees the role of Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Singapore – what he calls ‘the Multilateral 7’, or ‘M7’ – as vital to holding the ring in recalibrating the West’s relations with China, keeping in check a rampaging Trump in an increasing desperate quest for re-election.
The M7 also has a pivotal role to play in the future of the WHO, providing funding in return for reform, especially if Trump continues to cut support. Rudd is equivocal about Boris Johnson as part of the M7, but gives Britain the benefit of the doubt as a continuing ‘multilateral’ power and not a poodle of Trump.
Big change is needed at the WHO, he says. It’s not just a question of whether its head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the former Ethopian foreign minister, is too close to Beijing. Rudd is also concerned about the need for more resources and powers for its core role in international health regulation and pandemics.
In future relations with China Rudd cautions against Trumpian excess but equally against Europe becoming ‘the soft underbelly of the West’ in cosying up to Xi.
‘I find with many of my European friends, whether in London, Paris or Berlin, that there is often an assumption that you must put the megaphone away permanently and roll over and have your tummy tickled every second Thursday as a way of dealing with our Chinese friends for fear of upsetting them. I’d just like to remind a European audience that you’re dealing with a Leninist state as existed in the old Soviet Union in the 1980s, in terms of its essential political construction. So therefore do not think it is a rolling exercise in Socratic exchange’.
Rudd recommends Shinzo Abe’s Japan as a model. ‘Japan is always very careful and very consistent in the way it manages its operational strategy and diplomacy in dealing with China. There continue to be rolling incidents every day around the contested territories in the East China Sea between the two countries. At the same time Abe does not launch into a public ideological diatribe against the Chinese government and the Chinese people every other day because he feels like it.’
The key is to be tough yet also cooperative. ‘I’ve been criticised – in Australia at least, and to some extent internationally – for being either too hard or too soft at various times but because I’m a student of Chinese politics and the Chinese language I understand the nature of the Chinese-Leninist state and what we’re dealing with here.’
He highlights four points for Europe – like Australia – to focus on. First, our alliance with the United States, which needs to be protected; second, liberal democracy – ‘we believe in universal values and guess what, they’re not gonna change either. That’s who we are, that’s our identity’; third, bilateral interests, especially in trade and students; fourth, institutions of regional and global governance.
‘A balanced relationship is firm on the first two, engaged on the second two. The danger in many Western reactions to China is that they either pretend the first two don’t exist or suddenly discover that the first two are the only two.’
Rudd doesn’t see China, even under Xi, as an imperialist power. ‘I see nothing in China’s current practice or in its historical perspective that actually wants to occupy territory; that is alien to their interest. Maximising their strategic and economic interests through a series of other relationships, that is their interest.’
However, he sees growing military, as well as ideological and social, threats. ‘China has changed the military dynamic in East Asia not just because of the South China Sea and not just because of the acquisition of capabilities which are much more blue water in orientation than was the case before.’ Australia is increasing its defence spending in consequence.
This brings us starkly to what Rudd calls ‘Cold War 1.5’. Embarking on another tutorial, he highlights the four characteristics of the Cold War with the Soviet Union until the 1980s. ‘Mutually assured destruction, third country proxy wars, zero economic engagement, and a full-blown ideological contest.’
How does this match in the case of China? Here his assessment becomes positively chilling to me, who previously thought all this talk of war – hot or cold – was overblown.
Before Covid-19, he says, ‘there was some level of mutually assured destruction, because the Chinese do have a second-strike capability in their nuclear arsenal and they are modernising.
‘Secondly, you had some evidence of an emerging conflict between authoritarian capitalism of the Chinese model versus liberal capitalism of the Western model. Thirdly, you had no third country proxy wars, but a big question mark on the future evolution of Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and the extent to which it becomes militarised and counter measures are taken against it by the United States and others.
‘But fourthly, the big new factor is what happens with bilateral economic engagement between these two countries. ‘Decoupling’ during the course of the trade war between China and the US in 2018-19 was a ‘catchcry’ but frankly on the core elements of the economic relationship outside of 5G and certain key technologies it was reflected in reality.’
As if that isn’t stark enough, Rudd introduces another word we’d all forgotten since the Cold War with the Soviet Union: ‘détente’ – the art of relaxing acute tensions before they blew up into crises and even wars. ‘Who’s the architect of the new détente learning from the US-Soviet Cold War to prevent a Cold War relationship from tripping into a Cuban missile crisis?’ he asks.
I have an inkling of an idea who might possibly be this new instrument of détente with China. How about a former Australian prime minister completing a PhD at Oxford, bridging the new East and West?
• Hear the full interview on the latest podcast from The New European.