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
“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.
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”.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.”