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Collapsing US-China relations and rising nationalist impulses in both countries threaten future conflict, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has warned. Photo: Shutterstock

US-China military clash a ‘real danger’ before November vote, warns ex-Australia PM Kevin Rudd

  • A collapse in diplomatic engagement between the two superpowers has heightened the risk of an incident escalating into a crisis, the former PM said
  • His remarks came in a wide-ranging talk he gave touching on the South China Sea, Taiwan, his successor’s failures and the dangers of severing China ties
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has warned of the growing risk of military conflict between China and the United States amid rising nationalism in both countries in the run-up to the US presidential election.
Rudd, who led Australia from 2007-2010 and again for three months in 2013, said on Thursday that a build-up of Chinese and US forces in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait raised the possibility of a “conflict through miscalculation and escalation” ahead of the November 3 vote.

“There’s a real danger that with a collapsing diplomatic relationship and an erosion of all forms of political capital between the two countries in their bilateral relationship, if you have an incident of a ship colliding with another ship, an aircraft colliding with another aircraft … then you have a crisis with an aircraft down or a ship as to what then happens,” Rudd said.

He made the remarks during an online event hosted by La Trobe University in Melbourne, titled “The China Challenge: Can a New Cold War be Avoided?”, which also featured Linda Jakobson, founding director of the China Matters think tank.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pictured in 2013. Photo: Reuters

Rudd warned that “nationalist impulses” could escalate a future crisis, “particularly in the several months leading up to the election when the politics of high nationalism are alive and well, both in Washington and Beijing”.

The noted Sinophile, who speaks Mandarin and served as a diplomat in China, said he expected Chinese President Xi Jinping to attempt to take control of Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province, within the next decade.

Describing an invasion as an extreme scenario, he said Beijing was more likely to use tactics such as cyberattacks and economic blockades to force the Taiwanese authorities to conclude that “on balance, the game is up and they’d better negotiate political terms”.

“The Chinese under Xi Jinping believe that the forces of history are with them,” Rudd said. “They are ultimately dialectical materialists.”

China’s foreign minister tells EU not to get caught up in ‘new Cold War’

He said Beijing was betting on a fading resolve in Washington to defend Taipei, despite the Taiwan Relations Act which commits the US to helping the self-ruled island maintain “sufficient self-defence capabilities” – although it does not guarantee it will intervene militarily.

He predicted that Democratic candidate Joe Biden, if elected president, would sell more military equipment to Taipei, but said the jury was still out on whether his administration would intervene militarily.

Rudd said an exit ramp for escalating US-China tensions would depend on whether Chinese politics could reform from within and if a possible Biden administration could execute more “carefully and intelligently crafted” policies to counter Beijing.
The former leader of the centre-left Labor Party also took aim at current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other recent centre-right governments in in the country for pursuing a “mindless” policy on China. He said his successor Malcolm Turnbull – under whose watch a Chinese company secured a 99-year lease for the Port of Darwin – had flipped from being deferential to hawkish toward Beijing in step with the administration of US President Donald Trump.
It's logical nonsense that Australia is somehow Robinson Crusoe in having a complex China relationship
Kevin Rudd, former Australian PM

“Since then, it’s been a case of who can out ‘hairy chest’ who within the Australian government in being the most belligerent toward Beijing,” Rudd said. “So my overall critique of where we’ve been for the last six or seven years has been its incoherence and its inconsistency against these essential benchmarks of policy.”

The former prime minister said Australia should approach China on the basis of being a liberal democracy and US ally, but pursue a mutually beneficial trade relationship and cooperate at international organisations on issues of shared concern like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
Canberra should also work with like-minded countries such as Japan, South Korea and Canada to resolve differences with Beijing, he said.

“It pays for us to be, as it were, marching with others, rather than unilaterally engaging in chest beating – which I see episodically from Morrison beating the left chest, and Tarzan Dutton beating the right chest – as opposed to prosecuting a rational, integrated China strategy on Australia’s part,” Rudd said, referring to the country’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

Rudd criticised current Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, right, and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, left, of ‘unilaterally engaging in chest beating’ when it comes to China. Photo: EPA
The veteran politician also slammed the current administration for cutting 60 positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including 10 overseas postings, accusing it of sabotaging Australia’s ability to act as a responsible middle power and G20 economy.

“You need a world-class foreign service in order to do that, not one that is shrinking and becoming a boutique, out of the corner of your left handkerchief arrangement,” he said.

Sino-Australian relations have sharply deteriorated since April, when Canberra infuriated its largest trading partner by calling for the establishment of an independent international inquiry to investigate the origins and spread of Covid-19. Beijing subsequently imposed a series of restrictions on imports of Australian barley, beef and wine – a major blow to Australian exporters who sent goods worth A$153 billion (US$110.9 billion) to China in 2018-19.
Although Beijing has insisted the trade measures were not related to politics, the moves were widely seen in Australia as economic retaliation for proposing the inquiry. On Wednesday, Wang Xining, China’s No. 2 diplomat in Australia, accused Canberra of singling out Beijing with the proposal, quoting Shakespeare to liken the proposal to the betrayal of Julius Caesar. The World Health Assembly, the World Health Organisation’s governing body, ultimately adopted a European Union-brokered resolution calling for a “comprehensive, independent and impartial” investigation into the pandemic. The resolution was co-sponsored by more than 130 countries, including Australia and China.

China envoy likens Australia’s coronavirus inquiry call to Shakespearean betrayal

Criticising what he described as a “woe is me” and “get out of jail card” mentality in relation to the challenge of balancing Australia’s economic and security interests, Rudd said it was a “logical nonsense” that the country was “somehow Robinson Crusoe in having a complex China relationship”.

“Other countries have got the same challenge,” he said, referring to other democracies with close trade links to China such as South Korea and Japan. “What it requires is a disciplined strategic approach, in partnership with countries who share our challenges, dilemmas, but also our core values.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘Nationalist impulses’ risk sino-u.s. conflict within months, rudd warns