Rudd’s Surprising Stance on China

ImageCOUNCILLOR BLOG: Kevin Rudd’s “New Statesman” article, “West Unprepared for China’s Rise”, which appeared in the “Inquirer” section of “The Weekend Australian” of July 14-15, was both interesting and revealing.  By design or happy accident two other articles in the same issue shed illuminating, though different, lights on it.

Rudd says that “it is now a commonplace that China will emerge as the world’s largest economy”, but seems to expect that it will nevertheless accept the existing international order as it is.  He asks “Will (China) accept the culture, norms and structure of the post-war order?  Or will China seek to change it?”  He says that “the international community must accept that it is entirely legitimate for China to have a louder voice at the global negotiating table”, but goes on to say that “we”—presumably the West—“should argue clearly with the Chinese political elite that the liberal international order….must be preserved.”

This is the same line reported by Greg Sheridan in his article “Obama’s pivot to our region”, when he quotes US Under Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, as saying that the US is “all for a strong vibrant China provided China is playing by the rules”.

But this expectation is directly contradicted by the distinguished journalist and North Asia expert Max Suich in his article “A relationship we take for granted at our peril”.  He says that China, while not aspiring to be an empire, is not a status quo power either, and will have an “unarguably persuasive” case  if it becomes the biggest economy in the world; this will attract support for its “legitimate interest in changes in international economic institutions”.

So these are conflicting views on whether China will accept the “culture, norms and structure of the post-war order” or not.  If it doesn’t, what then?  Rudd strikes an ominous note when he says that if “China steps beyond these agreed norms, the rest of the international community should be prepared not only to say no resolutely but also to act accordingly”—words similar to earlier remarks by Rudd critically quoted by Suich in his article.

Elsewhere in his article Rudd says that engaging China over the future of the international order will require “most critically, continued, open and candid engagement with the Chinese political elite”.  If that is what he wants to happen, it seems odd that in this article, as on earlier occasions, he seems ready to talk not in terms of the inclusion of China in possibly modified international arrangements, but rather to hold out the prospect of a clash between China and “the rest of the international community”, if “the world’s largest economy” steps beyond “agreed norms” which pre-dated its rise.

Remarks like those are unlikely to help realise his objective of engagement with the Chinese political elite, who are sensitive about containment and exclusion.  They also seem to reveal an underlying readiness on Rudd’s part to differentiate between China on the one hand and “the rest”—presumably all other countries—on the other—in fact still to see China as “the other”, despite its ever-increasing involvement in regional and international affairs.  This seems an odd way to look at the world by someone who so enthusiastically espouses Asia-Pacific community of purpose, and the creation of a “Pax Pacifica”.

It’s also almost certainly unrealistic ,if he is seriously expecting there to be a regional or international consensus in any clash with “the West” over changes to the international system.  As Max Suich says, “China’s alternative economic model…is attractive in the developing world and the country’s legitimate interest in changes in international economic institutions will therefore attract support.”

And this doesn’t only apply in the economic sphere, as the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia showed very recently: knowledge of China’s position on the South China Sea and deference to it on the part of some countries prevented the adoption of an (anti-China) consensus on that important subject.

Of course remarks are made in particular contexts.  In this article Rudd was presumably primarily addressing a British and European audience.  His earlier remarks in the same vein, referred to by Max Suich, were reportedly addressed to a United States audience, in the person of Hillary Clinton.  But information is now globalised, as is so much else, and Rudd needs to ensure that his messages can withstand scrutiny in all parts of the world, including those he’s talking about.

 Opinion piece by Geoff Miller, Councillor at the AIIA NSW

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