Ahead of taking up his position as Australia’s ambassador to Washington, former prime minister Kevin Rudd has warned of the dangers of the tense relationship between the US and China.
“The overall state of the US-China relationship is in bad strategic repair,” Mr Rudd told 7.30.
He said it was Australia’s role as a friend and ally of the US to help build “guardrails” into the relationship to avert a dangerous deterioration, “so that we do not end up with a crisis, escalation and war by accident”.
Chinese President Xi Jinping made unusually direct criticism of the US this week, quoted in state media as telling delegates of China’s key political advisory body: “Western countries, led by the US, are implementing all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us.”
“It was unusual, and it was blunt,” Mr Rudd said.
“In fact, I’ve been struggling for the last 24 hours to find a time when a Chinese paramount leader has attacked the United States by name.”
China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang — the former Chinese ambassador to the US — went further, announcing that the US and China were heading towards “inevitable conflict” if Washington does not change its approach.
Part of the explanation for the statements, Mr Rudd said, was that the premier was addressing a domestic audience, seeking to divert blame for China’s economic and other woes.
“But it does signal a hardening of China’s overall strategic posture towards the United States,” Mr Rudd said.
Chinese militarisation justifies expansion of Australian navy
The former prime minister said China’s rapid militarisation has required Australia and the US, as well as other regional powers, to review their military capacity, especially in response to the expansion of China’s navy.
According to the Pentagon’s China Military Power November 2022 report, China’s navy is currently the world’s largest and now has around 340 warships and submarines, of which 12 are nuclear-powered submarines. That fleet is expected to grow to 400 ships in the next two years.
“The strategic environment within East Asia and the West Pacific is changing because of that fact,” Mr Rudd said.
The Chinese government, he said, objects to increased defence expenditures in Japan, Korea and new defence arrangements between the Philippines and the US, as well as Australia’s own decision to commit to the new submarine project under AUKUS.
“The fact that China reacts of itself does not mean the actions we’ve taken to sustain our own national security are invalid.”
However, he also noted that China’s nuclear doctrine is one of non-first use, and that Australia’s military alliance with the US and the AUKUS deal does not make it a target of China.
Rudd responds to Keating’s criticisms
Mr Rudd disagreed with former prime minister Paul Keating’s long-standing critique of US policy, in which Mr Keating described the US trying to contain China.
Mr Rudd argued for a realistic reading of the situation on the ground.
“I would suggest that it’s important for us also to analyse how the strategic environment in Asia and the Indo-Pacific, and for that matter globally, is changing because of China’s own military rise,” he said.
“The response to [China’s increased military expenditure] from the United States, and by various US allies including Australia, has been somewhat late in coming, to be frank.”
Last year, Mr Rudd published a book titled The Avoidable War on the danger of catastrophic conflict between the US and China.
He said it was part of Australia’s role to work with China to deter that country from taking, “…premeditated military action against Taiwan which would be a fundamental destabilisation of the status quo.”
Rudd’s forthcoming role as ambassador
Commenting on his forthcoming role as Australian Ambassador to the US, Mr Rudd said the fact that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong had chosen to send him to Washington at this time reflected the general anxiety about the state of great power relations in the world.
“If I can play some very small role in our own dealings with the administration in Washington … in helping to provide advice on how things may be stabilised, then I’ll play that small role.”