The great speech - brave new neighbourhood
In August, former prime minister, the Honourable Kevin Rudd, AC, BA ’81, HonLLD ’16, delivered a lecture at ANU on Australia’s future and its place in the region and the world. This is an edited version of his speech.
Tonight, I'd like to talk about alternative visions for Australia’s future. What constitutes the elements of a credible national vision? How is it anchored in our sense of national identity? How is it anchored in our sense of national values? And how is it grounded in our enduring national interests? Interests which transcend any particular political administration. I'd like to speak in particular about alternative visions for our future in the region and the world, given China's rise and given America’s response to it, and where we find ourselves in the midst of that.
To begin with, it's worth thinking about China's own grand strategy and what its impact on us might be. I think it's helpful to understand how other people think and why they think that way. Understanding China's worldview,
Xi Jinping’s worldview, and what, as a result of that, constitutes China's grand strategy, should be our first step in framing our own national response.
The Chinese Communist Party doesn't intend to wither away. They intend to be there beyond the centenary in 2021 into the long-term future as a hard Marxist-Leninist party. They’ve says it, repeatedly, and guess what? They mean it. They obtained power through the barrel of a gun, and, if necessary, they will sustain it that way. And I have never shared the assumption that I’ve seen so much in the literature over the years that China will one day transform into a more liberal democratic state.
Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong. These are elemental to China's national self-image and equally elemental to its national strategy for the future. And if we diminish this, or fail to understand the centrality of this in China's own “Maslowian hierarchy of needs”, then we are failing in our analysis. In this Taiwan remains fundamental. Hence why Taiwan, rarely in our news, is always in Beijing’s news.
China wants to continue to grow the economy: Why?
So that people's living standards are improved and as a consequence of that it sustains the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.
China has 14 land borders, the greatest number of any country in the world, apart from the Russian Federation, which also has 14. But in addition to that, China has at least six neighbouring states with whom it has disputed maritime borders. China's objective with its neighbours, on land and across the sea, is to have as benign relationships as possible, and ultimately as compliant relationships as possible, when measured against the benchmark of China's core national interests. China has no interest in territorial invasion. But China does have an interest in having neighbours which cause no trouble.
Looking to the east of China's mainland towards its maritime periphery, to push the United States back to the first island chain (from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan and then through the Philippines) and then over time to the second island chain (which is another line about a thousand kilometres further east running through Guam). This interest is driven by the central organising principle that this is the strategic space necessary for China to secure its ultimate objective of returning Taiwan to the motherland’s embrace. Even if this ultimately requires military force.
As we seek to understand the Chinese leadership’s strategic priorities, there is also the question of the future of the global rules-based order. China’s intention is not to change the order overnight but to gradually reform multilateral institutions, change their personnel and transform their culture in a manner more compatible with Chinese interests and values. China also seeks simultaneously to establish institutions beyond the United Nations framework and the Bretton Woods institutions. Hence the Belt and Road Initiative. Hence the Asian infrastructure Investment Bank. And hence a number of initiatives along their lines.
The United States
International reality however, is the sound of two hands clapping, not just one. And that other hand is the United States. The Trump Administration has declared that the 40 years of strategic engagement between the United States and China since 1978 is now dead. That occurred with the publication of the National Security Strategy of the United States in November / December of 2017. Instead, the Trump Administration has now formally defined China for the first time as a strategic competitor.
However, declaring China as a strategic competitor in and of itself does not add up to either a policy or a strategy. It's a declaration. And as I've says recently to audiences in the United States, it reflects an American attitude rather than American strategy.
As we look carefully at the future of Australian policy towards China, we need to be as clear as we can about what in fact American strategy is in substance, and how sustainable it will be, as opposed to how it is described on any given day. Whether we like it or not, it is this question which sets many of the strategic parameters within which we are conducting our own debate on the future of Australian policy on China.
Australia must be absolutely clear about what U.S. grand strategy is, whether it will be sustained into the future and whether Australia, pursuing its own national interests, necessarily agrees as a matter of policy logic with every element of this unfolding US strategy.
This is a process requiring deep policy discipline in Canberra as we examine each of these questions rationally. If we fail to do so, we will end up constructing a national China strategy on flimsy foundations indeed. In determining Australia’s national China strategy, let me argue five core principles for the future.
We should actually have a national China strategy. At present, we do not. What I see instead is a government, as in the United States, with a series of attitudes about China, rather than a coherent policy for
dealing with China, including the substantive challenges that China represents in terms of our own enduring interests and values.
The China debate should not simply be a matter of gratuitous domestic political commentary. The question of our nation's future strategy for dealing with the rise of China – the first time in 250 years that the global economy will be dominated by a non-English-speaking, non-western, non-democratic state – is of itself a deeply serious matter. It should not be trivialised as if it is simply part of the rolling sport of domestic retail politics, let alone intra-party politics among the conservative parties themselves.
The substantive definition of a national China strategy involves a disciplined Cabinet process; an analytical consensus on the current and future direction of US and Chinese strategy and behaviour, the emerging reaction of other states; a clear, detailed and granular articulation of Australian national interests; and most critically, agreement on the policy measures to be taken across the whole of government, where possible in partnership with others, other times independently, to secure these core and continuing interests in response to China’s rise.
It would be useful for the current Australian government to conclude that there may be things to learn from previous Australian governments. I know it's a radically conservative proposition to think that conservative governments could actually learn from the past. But some of us have been around these race courses a few times before.
My government did have a coherent Cabinet-endorsed national strategy on China. It took us two years to develop. And the reason we did so was when in 2009 we began to notice China's increasing activism in the South China Sea; when we began to confront Chinese state-owned enterprises wishing to take over long- established large-scale Australian mining firms; and when we confronted growing human rights concerns with China. And when we found to our dismay that every level of the Australian government was engaging China in a different way.
That was why we embarked upon a two-year-long internal Cabinet process between 2009 and 2011.
It became our strategic framework for handling this growing complexity. On the one hand, we responded through the Australian Defence White Paper of 2009 in terms of what the future force structure of the Australian Defence Force should be, given the range of contingencies we might confront from China's rise and its military activities in our wider region. These conclusions were there in black and white. They weren't terribly well received in Beijing at the time. Nor were decisions such as rejecting the Chinese application to take over Rio Tinto though Chinalco. As well as a range of other decisions, based on the best intelligence advice we had available to us at the time, not to have Huawei provide its hardware into the Australian National Broadband Network. Not to mention positions we took on human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang and in relation to Australian Chinese businessmen incarcerated by the Chinese government. We did all this though a unified strategic framework. And it may be recalled we were roundly criticised, by both the conservatives and certain of their business community acolytes, for being too hard line in the management of the relationship.
However, when explaining these positions to our Chinese counterparts, we did not seek to do so gratuitously and offensively, nor necessarily in all circumstances publicly. We believed there was a role for private diplomacy and we used it. And when necessary we articulated our positions publicly. But our preference was always operational. Rather than simply declaratory.
My final principle for a credible National China Strategy is for Australia to avoid own goals.
Own goals such as declaratory statements and dramatic language like the “Turnbull Declaration” of 2017 used primarily for the purposes of Australian domestic politics, irrespective of the unnecessary political alienation that may cause in the broader bilateral relationship. This contrasts with having a national strategy for dealing with China which is operational rather than simply declaratory. China after all looks at what we do. We seem to be preoccupied with what we say to our domestic audience. While what we say also serves to poison the bilateral political atmosphere. I would strongly suggest to those framing Australia’s China strategy today that this key differentiation is critical.
It’s not rocket science to develop a national China strategy – one which is anchored in the principles of being clear about what US and Chinese strategy are in reality, not just in rhetoric; learning from the strategy that previous Australian governments had developed; embracing concepts like 'constructive realism' as guides to our national China strategy in the difficult period that lies ahead; avoiding monumental own goals; and understanding the difference between an operational strategy and a declaratory strategy; and having the wisdom, from time to time, to simply act rather than screaming from the roof tops to appease the domestic right.
Indeed, I’m happy for the Cabinet Secretary to hand over our Cabinet papers on this subject to the current prime minister. I'd be delighted for [Prime Minister Scott] Morrison to read everything we deliberated on to reach our conclusions. As the relevant former prime minister for the period, it’s within my authority to do that. That’s because I'm the custodian of the Cabinet documents of our period in office. Some things will have changed. But
I suspect many of the judgements will apply just as well now as they did back then.
I’m still from Australia. And I’m still here to help.