The leaked conversation between Hillary Clinton and Kevin Rudd contradicts the perception that the former Australian prime minister was “soft” on China. After all, a warning that the US and allies must be prepared to “deploy force” should the plan to integrate China into the regional and global system fail are hardly the words of a pacifist. Casting a suspicious eye on China’s military build-up and calling Beijing “paranoid” over issues such as Taiwan and Tibet is not really the statement of someone happy to cede east and south-east Asia to Beijing.
It stacks up well — as far as consistency is concerned — with the 2009 Defence White Paper, which took a somewhat wary and even hawkish view of China’s rise. So Rudd deserves points for confronting some brutal truths about possible threats associated with China’s re-emergence. Nevertheless, they also seem to confirm several mistakes that Rudd made while he was prime minister.
First, Rudd changed his mind on China — a problem for such a proactive and determined prime minister. When he came to power in late 2007, one of the first foreign policy decisions he made was to unilaterally withdraw from the Quadrilateral Initiative comprising Australia, the US, Japan and India. Another was to reverse the Howard government’s decision to sell uranium to India despite New Delhi receiving a waiver from the 46 member Nuclear Suppliers Group. His first major overseas trip in 2008 included a high-profile visit to Beijing, but excluded Tokyo and New Delhi from the itinerary.
By seemingly spurning existing and emerging security partners, there is no doubt that China initially viewed Rudd as someone who would be “softer” on the rising power. When that did not occur, Beijing was first bemused, irritated, and by the time the Defence White Paper was released, subsequently furious.
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Second, there is confusion within the ranks as to what the former PM’s Asian Pacific Community (APC) initiative was designed to achieve. The European Union was mention as the ideal type. Proposing an institution to eventually bring heads of government together in order to discuss the full range of strategic, security, and economic issues, the APC was initially seen as a vehicle with which to engage and help integrate China into the regional order — something Dick Woolcott, the envoy sent to promote the idea to the region, has confirmed publicly several times.
Yet, according to the WikiLeaks cable, by March 2010 Rudd spoke about the APC as an institution that could compete with existing ones that excluded the United States such as the East Asia Summit (the US was subsequently invited to become a member of the EAS in 2011.) In other words, the idea behind the APC changed from helping to “integrate” China to “constraining” it.
Again, it is an admirable trait to have big ideas and promote them with fervour in the region. But if the rationale behind these keep changing, then Australian activism is more likely to cause confusion and annoyance among friends and competitors than further our national interests.
Finally, the leaked cables are a boon for journalists. But they would not have surprised the Chinese who had already concluded that Rudd’s attitude towards Beijing significantly hardened in 2009-2010. There might be a few awkward moments when foreign minister Rudd is next in China but being “brutally realistic” is what the Chinese Politburo and Central Military Commission members do best.
To his credit, it is something Rudd has decided to be as well.
*Dr John Lee is a foreign policy fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.