Rudd: work with China for a peaceful Pacific

By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

The United States’ much-vaunted strategic ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific is a ‘massive triumph of labelling over substance’, says Australian MP and former foreign minister Kevin Rudd, and what the Asian region really needs is a more defined institutional framework for resolving potential conflicts.

Looking ahead to the once-in-a-decade change of leadership taking place in China next month, Rudd urged the international community to engage positively with Beijing’s incoming leaders on regional security issues. He underlined the ‘profound’ global transition occurring as China began to emerge as the world’s largest economy, and suggested that the winner of next week’s US presidential election should make it a priority to devise a five-year strategic roadmap for US–China relations.

As his country’s prime minister between 2007 and 2010, Rudd promoted the idea of a formal Asia-Pacific Community, akin to a nascent EU or NATO-lite. He was less prescriptive about the formula for building Asia’s security when returning to the theme during a speech at the IISS last week, but he suggested that measures should be taken through the East Asia Summit to build confidence among all 18 member states (including the US and Russia).

This could begin with regular military contacts and exercises, especially in less controversial areas such as coordinated disaster management, before perhaps moving to the freezing of territorial claims and a commitment of the joint extraction of resources.

Ultimately, Rudd believed, ‘we should work with Beijing on the long-term project of turning the East Asia Summit into something approaching an Asia-Pacific community’.

Public protests have erupted recently in China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam over a series of disputed islands in the South China Sea, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands both claimed by China and Japan.

While declaring himself an optimist about Asia’s future generally, Rudd admitted that such chauvinistic displays of nationalism were most concerning.

‘This is a region which is being now populated by dynamic, creative, twenty-first century economies with the driving forces of economic globalisation bringing these … peoples closer together, sitting on festering nineteenth century nationalisms which has precisely the reverse effect in pulling people apart. To put a large narrative across the top of that is difficult.’

In remarks often leavened with humour, Rudd breezily downplayed the significance of the renewed American military focus on the Asia-Pacific region. ‘When the US says it is going to have 60% of its fleet in the Pacific’, he said, ‘we forget about the fact that globally its fleet is contracting. Result: same number of nuts and bolts in US ships in the Pacific as before, but we’ve had a terrific debate in the meantime and we feel better about it.

‘In the Asian hemisphere … there are fundamental strategic realities which none of us will shift, and therefore these realities need to be recognised and worked with.’

From his experience as a diplomat in Beijing and veteran China watcher, Rudd believed incoming  president  Xi Jinping (expected to replace Hu Jintao), premier Li Keqiang (replacing Wen Jiabao) and other members of the communist politburo would pursue an economically reforming agenda  to sustain high growth levels, increase living standards, create sufficient jobs, encourage the private sector and to encourage investment. These would be slightly more charismatic politicians than the current cohort (‘not afraid to express a personality’) who might even try to tackle the thorny problem of land reform – although Rudd predicted this would be tested in one province first before a wider roll-out.

Having laughingly dubbed the IISS a wonkish organisation ‘encouraging nerds everywhere’ at the start of his speech – ‘I’m the patron saint of nerds,’ he quipped, to soften the blow – Rudd reeled off detailed analyses of possible finance-sector reform, disastrous village-level political reform already undertaken, and the corrosive effect of the Bo Xilai case and other corruption scandals on the social compact.

He discussed Chinese cyber and space capabilities, the politics of the Chinese military and the fact that sometimes ‘the Chinese military and foreign ministry seem to have been working in different directions’. He also conceded that the appointment of General Ma Xiaotian as head of the Chinese air force ‘should make for an interesting relationship’ with the US. General Ma has previously accused Washington of having a ‘Cold War mentality’ and warned the US that the South China Sea is none of its business.

In the days since Rudd’s speech, current Prime Minister Julia Gillard has reiterated Australians’ growing conviction about the importance of Asia. In a major foreign-policy speech in Sydney, Gillard laid out plans to adjust her nation’s historically European outlook to focus even more on its near neighbourhood in the ‘Asian century’.

Read a transcript of Rudd’s speech: China’s leadership transition and the future of a rising power.


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