Kevin Rudd delivers the inaugural La Trobe University China Studies Oration

“Xi Jinping’s China, Trump’s America and the Future of Australia‑China Relations”

 Inaugural La Trobe University China Studies Oration

The Honourable Kevin Rudd

26th Prime Minister of Australia

State Library of Victoria


Tuesday 12 February 2018

Tonight I am to speak about Australia-China relations.

Let me first put this into a broader frame.

I’d like to talk first about China’s rise.

Second, I’d like to talk about Trump’s America.

I’d then like to talk about where these two phenomena leave us in terms of the future of the global order, as well as the regional order here in the Asia-Pacific region.

Then I’d like to reflect for a moment on what constitutes our enduring Australian national interests and values.

And finally, I would like reflect on how have we have sought to prosecute those interests and values since diplomatic normalisation in 1972, through to my own period in government, and most recently the period of the conservative government as well, concluding with an observation or two about the future.


China’s Rise


China’s rise is an extraordinary phenomenon against all the measures of modern history.

It is a phenomenon the likes of which we have not seen for half a millennium.

That is, in the space of 30 years, we have seen an economy the size of Australia’s, as it was when I first went to work in the embassy in Beijing, to an economy which now, depending on the measure, is either the largest or the second largest in the world.

For such an extraordinary change to occur in such a short frame of time is remarkable by any historic standards.

And so where economic strength and power go, so proceeds political power. Where political power proceeds, so proceeds foreign policy influence. And where foreign policy influence proceeds, so too goes strategic influence more broadly.

And when all this is compacted into such a short space of time, we are dealing with a genuinely historic event.

Let me put it into a different frame.

When China finally passes the United States as the world’s largest economic system, 经济体系 (jingji tixi), and when that occurs according to market exchange rates, not just purchasing power parity, this will be the first time since George III was on the throne of England that the largest economy in the world will be non-Western, non-democratic, and non-English speaking.

That’s quite a long time.

Our Chinese friends will remind us that this in fact is a return to the way things were around the world about the time of Kangxi and Qianlong, the two great emperors of the Qing Dynasty, when China was clearly the largest economy in the world.

For those of us with our consciousness shaped in the modern period, however, this is a new and startling phenomenon.

And so we ask ourselves what does it all mean?

Given the reality of rising China, the first question we must ask ourselves is how does China and its current leadership prioritise its own interests and values in the region and in the world, and for their own country domestically?

I think it’s always best to seek to explain this in terms of a series of concentric circles.

This begins with the proposition that the Chinese Communist Party is a Marxist-Leninist party which has made it absolutely clear since ‘49, since ‘89, and again most recently, that it intends to remain in power for the future as well, rather than to transition itself into one form of liberal democratic political party or another, even through the sort of transitions we’ve seen in countries such as Singapore and elsewhere in wider East Asia.

Of course the reasons for that vary. If you speak to Chinese leaders, they will say that if you look at the history of China’s dismemberment from the time of the Opium Wars through to the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, that the reason for that dismemberment was that China had continuing weak central government.

As a consequence, in this view, China is only able to stand up for itself against foreign depredations was it has established or restored strong central government.

And leaving ideological questions to one side about the nature of Marxism-Leninism, and the notion of a one-party state, the parallel historical phenomenon in the mind of Chinese leaders is that this central political force, this strong central government, is necessary in order to keep the country together, to grow China, to make it strong and powerful in the world, so that China then asserts, in their view, its proper place in the region and the world as well.

There’s a confluence, therefore, between the ideological views of a Marxist-Leninist party on the one hand, and the received historiography of China’s own imperial history.

Their view is that China has been great at times of strong central government under a strong emperor, whether it’s in the Qing Dynasty under Qianlong or Kangxi, or whether it’s equivalent emperors either through the Ming, the Song, the Tang or back through the Han.

It’s important, therefore, to understand that this is principle number one in the priorities of the Chinese leadership—that the party, this Marxist-Leninist party, this one-party state, should remain in power into the future for the reasons I’ve just outlined. Anyone who thinks to the contrary is undertaking a misleading analysis of what drives the core political interests galvanising the Chinese party and state.

Second to that is that the Chinese state, through the party, is determined to maintain the unity of its own country.

Unity meaning no separatism: no separatism in Tibet, no separatism in Xinjiang, and no separatism greater than already exists in Taiwan.

In other words the unity of the country, reinforced by Chinese historiography, is of paramount importance to the continued legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and state.

When, therefore, we see our Chinese friends talk in strong and strident terms about Taiwan, this is the deep product of Chinese views about the unity of the empire as it was in the  imperial period, and now the unity of the motherland as it is now seen in the post-‘49 period.

It goes back to absolute fundamentals in terms of the national historiography of the Chinese state.

A third set of priorities, from the perspective of the Chinese leadership, is to grow the Chinese economy, necessary also for the continued legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. And that means ensuring that you are prosecuting an economic strategy which raises Chinese living standards and enables the Chinese people to escape from the poverty they suffered through previous failed experiments in Marxist or Maoist collectivist control. The Great Leap Forward, as we know, was an economic and humanitarian disaster in China.

The Cultural Revolution, the prioritisation of politics over economics, was also an economic disaster for the Chinese people.

Following the death of Mao and the rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping in 1976-78, and the change in the whole political and ideological structure of the Chinese Communist Party at the end of 1978, we saw the emergence of an entirely different worldview on how to grow the Chinese economy.

And that is the absolute priority attached to the role of market economics within the continued collective ownership of the means of production.

And what you see today, 35 years-plus later, is the product of that fundamental re-engineering of China’s economic orthodoxy.

Deng Xiaoping, an extraordinary figure in the history of the twentieth century, had only a few Chinese characters to sum up this new change in direction: 对外开放,对内改革(dui wai kai fang, dui nei gai ge) – to open to the outside world, and to reform the economy domestically.

That was all that was necessary to send clear messages to the rest of the Chinese economic state, and the enterprises which made it up, that they were to engage in global markets and introduce price-based reforms domestically, including increasing levels of private profit.

As you can see, 35 years later, it worked, and this economy, which then was about the same size in real dollar terms as Australia’s, is now somewhat larger!

Therefore, in the ongoing search for legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party, continuing to deliver the economic goods to the Chinese people is fundamental to ensuring the party remains in power.

There is a fourth priority as well. China must also now ensure that the economic growth it has sustained over the last 30 years or more is no longer accompanied by widespread environmental devastation—the pollution of land, the pollution of water courses, and most critically the pollution of the air. The public reaction against this—right across the country, not just in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai—is so acute that unless the Party cleans this up, frankly it will then lose legitimacy.

When you see the effect on people’s health, when you see the effect on children’s health in some of the dirtiest cities in the country, this immediately ricochets back into China’s own domestic set of policy priorities.

Hence why over the last five years you’ve seen Chinese policies on climate change, and Chinese policies on domestic environmental regulation, go from policy inertia to policy activism, in direct response to what the public is saying domestically to the Chinese Communist Party and state.

Of course there is another set of priorities as well, beyond the ones that I’ve just listed, and that too is borne of China’s historical experience. China also wishes to maintain stable and beneficial relations with each of the 14 states which share land borders with the People’s Republic.

China has more land border neighbours than any other country in the world other than the Russian Federation, which also has 14.

This is a large number of external relationships to maintain. The Chinese interest in this is to ensure, consistent with its historical experience over 2-3,000 years of recorded history, that the empire is secure only when its borders with these states are also secure. And furthermore, that the content of these relationships ensure that the interests of Beijing, or the interests of the Chinese empire, or the interests of the Chinese post-‘49 state, are maximised.

The Chinese phrase for this is 周边国家 (zhoubian guojia) or neighbouring states, and when you have the 14 of them, they occupy a great priority in Chinese strategic thinking.

We would say this is simply self-evident in its logic: any country with common borders with such a large number of states would be interested in maintaining the security of its borders.

All I would say to that is that it’s also etched deeply into the historical consciousness of Chinese leaders going back centuries.

Beyond that again, proceeding with the logic of concentric circles, there is a view in Beijing that its own immediate maritime environment, the Western Pacific out to the First Island Chain, or what is sometimes called the Second Island Chain, is an area where China should enjoy increasing freedom of the seas, from its own perspective. And that is where we have a difficult intersection with the interests of the United States in the post-war period.

The United States since 1945, across East Asia and the West Pacific, operating out of its allies in Japan primarily, also to some extent in Korea, but also from its own facilities in Guam, and then through US Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, has seen the Western Pacific as an American lake. And that, by and large, is how it has been since 1945.

No-one, no state in the region has had the capacity since the defeat of imperial Japan to confront or to challenge in any way the combined air and naval capabilities of the United States deployed in that region.

But most recently, with China’s acquisition of national wealth and power, we’ve seen that translated into a new series of naval, air and broader military capabilities which begin to challenge that traditional American claim.

Of course the immediate friction point is American surveillance flights directly over the Chinese coast, which have continued since the 1950s, just after the Communist Party took over.

But it is not just there. It is also a result of different strategic interests in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, around various contingencies associated with Taiwan, and more broadly, the emerging friction between a growing military capability, a growing naval and air capability on the part of China, projecting itself outward into its own immediate oceanic areas, now running headlong into the continuing strategic dominance of the United States Pacific Fleet and US Pacific Command operating out of Honolulu.

Beyond the immediate region, and beyond wider East Asia, there is also an open question now in the minds of China’s leadership about how China should engage the global order more broadly.

This is a new challenge. A new opportunity. And where Chinese foreign policy is now is in a state of intellectual and policy flux.

If you read the literature and follow it, as those of us who are professionally engaged in these subjects do, you will see that China now openly, publicly speculates about whether the post-’45 liberal international order should be subject to change as well, to reflect more directly China’s own future global strategic, economic, political and even ideological interests.

And there’s a large debate occurring within the Chinese academy and Chinese think tanks on this question. Those of us who follow the literature have seen its texture unfold over recent times.

Perhaps the most seminal event on this question was a conference on the foreign policy work of the party held in Beijing chaired by Xi Jinping, by then General Secretary and President of the country, in November of 2014.

It was called the Central Party Work Conference on Foreign Policy. It brought together the entire foreign and security policy establishment of the People’s Republic of China, as they listened to Xi Jinping and engaged with him on China’s future engagement with the global order.

That’s where we saw for the first time the emergence of new language about a new style of international relations, a new set of international institutions, a new type of Chinese diplomacy, a modern Chinese diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, and also the beginnings of a debate about how this current international order, which had been in existence since 1945, could possibly be refashioned in a different way.

That debate continues. But the debate has commenced. And if you observe what is happening in various international institutions at present, the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, before you go on to the individual specialised agencies of the UN system, China’s footprint and presence in each of these is now growing rapidly.

In the UN system, Chinese personnel are now routinely appointed to senior positions across the system.

China is now an increasingly important contributor to multilateral aid delivery. Historically, it was only done bilaterally in China’s aid deals across Africa, across Asia, and elsewhere in the Pacific.

China’s voice in support of individual diplomatic initiatives in the world-at-large is also becoming stronger and more active.

The best way in which you can conceptualise the change in China’s regional and global posture is to reflect again on what happened at that Central Party Work Conference in November of 2014.

The traditional phrase which China had used to describe its engagement with the region and the world was 韬光养晦, 决不当头 (tao guang yang hui, jue bu dang tou) – hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.

This was China’s core strategic axiom in a period when China’s wealth and power was growing, but was far short of full maturation.

In the period since then, that phrase officially describing China’s international policy behaviour has disappeared, in favour of other phrases: 奋发有为, 有所作为 (fen fa you wei, you suo zuo wei) – a more activist policy, a policy in which China can have a role to play and influence to bring to bear.

These may seem like extraordinary generalities to a Western audience. But these actually underline a deep change in China’s strategic view—about being passive recipients of a diplomacy or an international order or a set of international institutions set by somebody else in an earlier period; compared with a Chinese diplomacy which now says: “China is rising; China is now the second largest economy in the world; China now has an emerging strength of strategic presence in East Asia; and therefore, it is time for us also to ask the question whether we should now be pursuing a more activist Chinese foreign and security policy, in prosecution of China’s national, regional and global values and interests.”

This has been a seminal change. We do not know its destination point. But that is what’s unfolding.

So therefore when we discuss, as we will as this evening unfolds, the future of Australia’s relationship with China, it is set against this broad strategic background of what has unfolded in the People’s Republic in the post-‘78 period.  I’ve described this as a framework of concentric circles, proceeding from the nature of Chinese domestic politics, to the nature of China’s global foreign policy, as China seeks to construct an international order which is not simply a perpetuation of the one which we in the collective West, the post-war, successful victorious imperial powers, created in 1945, either at Bretton Woods, or at San Francisco, or as allies of the United States in the post-war period.


Trump’s America


What about Trump’s America? Well, it’s interesting. I live in the United States, it gets really interesting. You wake up most mornings and you wonder what will happen next. But underneath it all, and beyond the sound and light show which unfolds each day in the American media, there are certain strategic factors, possibly trends, which we need to observe.

One is the slogan ‘America first’. As you know, as keen students of the world, this has a particular historical pedigree in American foreign policy history. It was used most acutely in the 1920s and the 1930s as a deep repudiation of the experiment in internationalism first expressed by Woodrow Wilson, and his determination to create a post-First World War order through the League of Nations.

The United State Congress said “no, a pox on your houses”. And the American First movement became entrenched in the 1920s and 30s as America withdrew from active engagement in the development of the institutional machinery of the post-First World War order. Of course that had particular consequences.

America First, and the concept of American isolationism which underpins it, is now, once again, unleashed in the broader American domestic body politic. This should be cause for deep reflection. We do not know whether this is temporary, and whether it will last as long as Donald Trump, or whether it is now an emerging structural factor in American politics, both Republican mainstream (as well as Trumpian), but also possibly in the politics of the Democratic Party of the future too.

In other words, has the United States become fed up with being the principal provider of what the International Relations theorists would describe as ‘global public goods’. That’s an open question. Two years ago, it was not an open question. Now it is. And that of itself is important given that nature abhors a vacuum.

Then there is the parallel question of America’s role in the global economic order. The new forces of protectionism which the United States articulates, loudly, proudly, boldly and clear in a way which we have not associated with US administrations for decades past, almost back to Calvin Coolidge.

I will not go the question of who is right and who is wrong with the emerging trade dispute, I hazard possibly trade conflict, even trade war, between the United States and China. But the bottom line is, when you have an administration in Washington, which in its first year has repudiated the Trans Pacific Partnership, subjected to fundamental review the future of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), and has installed a series of capital P protectionist trade bureaucrats to run the trade policy of the United States administration—this is all new. We have not seen this for many, many decades.

When we go to the broader, global, multilateral commons, and the challenge which has focused so many of us in the last decade, namely the challenge of climate change, we see the United States retreating to an isolationist view, arguing that it has no role in the future development of either the Paris Agreement or what should come after it, while leaving open the question of whether it will repudiate the commitments that were made under the previous United States administration.

Parallel to all of that we also see new fractures emerging in the United States system of global alliances. You have seen this in Europe, not just in terms of what’s happened within the European Union, not technically an ally of the United States, although its strategic correlation with the security community of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is strong. We have also seen this with Britain’s decision on Brexit, which has weakened both Britain and Europe. We have also seen extraordinary public question marks raised by the Trump Administration about its future security guarantees not just to the NATO partners, but those with Japan and Korea as well.

And the overall message is that the United States may or may not uphold its formal treaty obligations that it undertook so boldly in the 1950s, in the main in Europe, but also in Asia, including Australia.

My overall thesis is we now have great strategic uncertainty about the future global and regional role of the United States in a way which we have not had to debate, at least  with such intensity, at any time in the post-’45 era. And our question is simply this: is this a temporary phenomenon with the United States, or is this something more permanent? The answer to that question affects us all.


Kindleberger or Thucydides


If we bring these two realities together – on the one hand China’s rise, on the other hand uncertainty concerning the future of the United States’ regional and global power, the consistency of US resolve to project power, combined with the continuity of US engagement in the global security, economic and environmental order – where does it all lead us?

There are two broad theories.

One is called the Thucydides’ Trap, based on the great ancient Greek historian. Thucydides’ Trap essentially is this: that a rising power, when confronting an established power, may cause sufficient fear on the part of the established power to cause the established power to pre-empt the emergence of a full-blown threat from that rising power, in order to preserve its own security.

Of course the analogy is between classical Athens and classical Sparta. And we know from the history of the Peloponnesian wars where that ended. Graham Allison, a friend and colleague of mine from Harvard, has recently penned a volume on Thucydides’ Trap and its application to the possibility of war between China and the United States. The title of the book is “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Graham, who I know well, has not said that war is in any way inevitable. But he points to 16 historical case studies since 1500 of rising powers and established powers dealing with this phenomenon. And his conclusion, based on this historical analysis, is that in 12 of those 16 case studies, they have indeed resulted in war.

Thucydides’ Trap is deeply studied in China. It is deeply studied in the military academies of the United States. We do not know whether this particular trajectory for US-China relations will play out. But if it starts to, the obvious question arises as to what we can still do by way of the political agency of the state, through foreign policy, to change that trajectory.

There’s a different theory as well, called the Kindleberger Trap. The Kindleberger Trap is one which reflects, in particular, on the post-1919 world order. Its reflection is along these lines: that the United Kingdom, which in the 19th century provided global public goods, was so strategically exhausted by the First World War, that its ability to continue to provide those public goods collapsed. So the UK’s ability to defend global freedom of navigation, the global commercial system, the gold standard, collapsed because of its strategic overreach in what was called the “war to end all wars”.

But the Kindleberger Trap says that rather than another power stepping into this vacuum, nobody does. The United States, which was perfectly primed to step into the global vacuum left by the British, given America’s decisive role in the conclusion of the First World War, in its response to the America First reaction to Wilsonian internationalism in 1919, withdrew from an already foundering global order in the early 1920’s. The Kindleberger Trap is simply this: if no-one provides global public goods—a withdrawing United Kingdom, a United States unwilling to fill the vacuum—and in the absence of anyone providing strategic ballast for the overall system to ensure a continuing and predictable set of rules for the order, international mayhem ensues.

And the rise of fascist Italy, Germany and Japan are usually seen as the classic case studies of what happens when you have a global strategic vacuum—either in terms of the absence of a predictable rules-based order, or the absence of a hegemon, whether it’s Britain or the United States, or other such hegemons in international history.

These two scenarios—Thucydides’ Trap and the Kindleberger Trap—are troubling scenarios. Neither of them have particularly happy stories attached to them. They certainly don’t have happy endings. But if you look at those who seriously examine the macro-strategic trends of what we are now confronting in the world at large, both regionally and globally, much of the analysis of what is actually happening out there begins to hang off one proposition or the other. Indeed, on closer analysis, these two conceptual and practical possibilities are not necessarily completely mutually exclusive.

The reason I emphasise these complex factors is because they make up the wider international framework  in which we now find ourselves as this country, Australia, seeks to navigate its own future in the twenty-first century – in a global and regional environment of compounding complexity, compounding change and with increasingly uncertain destinations.


Australian National Interests


So what are our enduring national interests as Australians?

First, like any nation state, we in this country must have as our core national interest the protection of our territorial integrity and the maintenance of our domestic sovereignty. These are axiomatic. These are case-universal across all states. Given our particular strategic geography, and our particular history, this presents Australians with a unique set of circumstances. Here we are, a country of 24-25 million people, in a wider Asia-Pacific region of 4 billion people, required to defend a continent the size of the United States.

Our historical response to this unique strategic dilemma by successive Australian governments, going back to colonial times, is worthy of reflection. Essentially it’s occurred in three phases. One, we were a British dominion, and therefore so long as Britannia ruled the waves, then “Bob’s your uncle”. For our Chinese friends here this evening, the best translation of “Bob’s your uncle” is “it’ll all be ok”. But when Britain ceased to rule the waves in the period we’ve just talked about in the post-1919 period, and when new uncertainties arose as we approached the darker days of the Second World War, and particularly after Japan’s entry into the war, we pursued a different course of action altogether. Which was to turn, as John Curtin, my Labor predecessor as Prime Minister said in 1942, “without pang or regret” to the United States of America to provide us with our security at a time of mortal threat.

And that has essentially been the fundamental setting of our national security policy ever since. Done by a Labor Prime Minister in ’41. And consummated by a Conservative Prime Minister in ’51 when the ANZUS treaty was finally signed. You’ll be familiar with the provisions of the treaty.

This brings us to the present. The ultimate question for this country now, which is the twelfth-largest economy in the world, with one of the smaller populations in Asia, but with one of the largest landmasses, longest coastlines and most expansive exclusive economic zones, is that a country like ours can practically benefit by having a strategic security alliance with a larger power with whom we share common security interests and common values. These remain the underpinning assumptions about Australia’s continued alliance with the United States.

Parallel to these national security interests are our economic interests as they have evolved over the post-war period. First, we had a relatively closed economy. But then, in response to an increasingly open global economy, from which we too could benefit in terms of increased living standards, higher levels of economic growth and more jobs, the Hawke and Keating Governments internationalised the Australian economy. Over time we became wedded as a nation to the need for an open global trading system, an increasingly open investment system, and an open exchange rate for our currency. The fundamental reforms engineered in the 1980s and ‘90s by the Hawke-Keating Government underpinned that.

Our other interests are driven by the fact we are the driest continent on Earth. We have a deep national interest in ensuring there is effective, aggregate global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that planet earth’s ability to support our population has a hope of surviving into the twenty-second century. Therefore, we are commanded by our national circumstances to support a global order which maximises global cooperative efforts to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, boosting investment in renewable energy and other alternative energy technologies, in order to keep temperature increases within two degrees centigrade by the end of the century. Otherwise, we bring about irreversible climate change with real consequences for our ability to feed and water ourselves over time.

These are the deep structural interests of the nation. There are others as well, including who we want to be as a people. And this is where our national interests intersect with our deep values as a people. We are an open society, we believe in an open economy, we believe in open politics, we practice freedom of expression, we practice freedom of religion, we practice a range of other individual freedoms of which we have become the beneficiaries of civilizational tradition going back hundreds of years. At least back to the 19th century. Arguably back to the Enlightenment. As well as the Judeo-Christian tradition from which the Enlightenment emerged. And this is the combined tradition which defines who we are as Australians as well: we are a robust liberal democracy, keen defenders of human rights at home, and therefore with a deep interest in the preservation of liberal values on the world at large.

So these are the things we hold dear: the advancement of our national interests, including our national security, our economic interests, an open economic system globally, a global environmental commons which can act on our collective behalf, a global system capable of providing other global public goods; but equally the preservation of who we are as a people and the values of freedom and fairness that we hold to be fundamental to our national identity.


Australia-China Relations


In our engagement with the People’s Republic since 1949, certain things have not changed. Other things have. After 1949, China was governed by a Communist Party after its national revolution. And China today continues to be governed by a Communist Party all these years later. As I said in my earlier remarks, in terms of the perspective of the Chinese leadership, that’s not about to change any time soon. China’s definition of political freedoms, including its proscription of certain freedoms which we would hold to be near and dear to our own tradition, represent fundamental differences in the values of our two countries, our two cultures and our two political systems. These should be acknowledged for what they are. And accepted for what they are. Namely real differences in the way in which we conduct our respective political systems.

In 1972, when E.G. Whitlam recognised the PRC and withdrew diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, it was this same Marxist-Leninist Party ruling China. In fact in 1972 China was then in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, a more intense version of Marxism-Leninism than we’d seen at any stage since 1949. While certain individual freedoms in China have grown in recent decades, in terms of people’s ability to choose who they marry, the sort of study and work they can undertake, and in making a whole range of lifestyle decisions which hitherto were unavailable to average Chinese citizens, nonetheless the bottom line is there is still a radical difference in our two political and social systems.

This difference has been a constant. It has been that way since 1949. And certainly since 1972. Therefore when I hear people say that this difference in our political values is some sort of radical new challenge to all of us in this country, I simply say: “hang on, this is what China has been like for the last seventy years”. It has always been thus. It’s simply a reality which has to be contended with. You can’t wish it away. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s always been a question of managing this difference in a mature, overall bilateral political relationship.

Then there is the question of our general strategic relationship with the People’s Republic. We have also made it clear throughout the period of recognition post-1972 that this country remains a strong ally of the United States. The difference within Australia on the question of our alliance obligations, between the Labor party and the conservative parties, is along these lines. Both sides of politics accept the virtue of the alliance. However, we the Australian Labor Party have never accepted that the alliance as mandating automatic Australian compliance with every single aspect of US foreign and strategic policy.

I led the charge against Australian involvement in the Iraq War. I was not a pin-up boy in the White House of George W. Bush as a result. I know that from first-hand experience. In a previous generation, our party opposed the Vietnam War, and Australian military involvement in it. A similar experience was had in Labor’s relationship with the White House Administration of the late 1960s and early 1970s, most particularly under President Nixon. But the fundamental commitment which both sides of politics have in terms of our enduring security relationship with the United States is of a bipartisan nature, albeit with these significant qualitative differences.

Australia’s economic relationship with China has grown rapidly in recent years, going from something minuscule, to where China now represents one-third of this nation’s exports. China is also now either the largest, or second-largest source of foreign direct investment in this country each year. In other words, there has been a fundamental change in the economic relationship with China since we recognised Beijing back in 1972. So that now the strength of China’s economy, its demand for what we have to sell, what we import from China, as well as the investment capital which flows here, radically shape the future direction of the Australian economy, the future strength of Australian employment, and the future living standards of the Australian people.

Our national response to this emerging economic reality, on both sides of Australian politics, has been that we should have a set of bilateral arrangements between the People’s Republic and Australia which maximise our economic engagement. Hence the bilateral free trade agreement that we entered into some years ago, concluded by the conservatives in government, and supported by Labor in opposition.

So in the overall scheme of things, that is how we have chosen to carve out our future with China: an enduring security relationship with the United States, and an expanding economic relationship with China, while refusing to yield to the false dichotomy that Australia must somehow choose between the two. And on top of this, an Australia always prepared to defend democracy, human rights and the rule of law, both at home and abroad.


Turnbull’s Flip, Flop, Flap on China


However, what I discover in recent times is that our current Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, has now articulated an increasingly inconsistent set of priorities to these largely bipartisan arrangements between Australian Governments, of either Labor or Conservative persuasions, since 1972, in our national engagement with the People’s Republic of China.

My most basic challenge to Mr Turnbull is along these lines: if you are pursuing a national strategy on Australia’s part in engaging China, then the minimum requirement for such a strategy is consistency. Yet what I have not seen in Mr. Turnbull’s approach to the Australia-China relationship is anything approaching policy consistency.

Let me give you two or three examples. When I was Prime Minister, I was regularly attacked by Mr. Turnbull for being too hard on our Chinese friends. I was regularly attacked because we took certain precautions to enhance the force structure of the Australian Defence Force. Look at the Australian Defence White Paper of 2009. This led to some reaction from Beijing. On the whole, our judgement was that this was right in the long-term Australian national strategic interest, against multiple strategic contingencies into the future, to enhance Australia’s future naval capabilities in particular. I was then subject of multiple attacks from Mr. Turnbull for being too right-wing in China. This is a matter of documentary record.

Let me raise another example, which is the strategic decision we took, in the national interest, about the security of the Australian National Broadband Network. We took a decision that certain international providers of Chinese origin, namely Huawei, should not be included in the NBN. Now when our Chinese friends reacted to that, I simply said to our friends from Beijing that I assumed they would welcome Telstra as an investor in the Chinese domestic national broadband network, and therefore an ability to provide hardware and software into the Chinese domestic telecommunications system. Even the thought of this led to much hilarity on the part of our Chinese friends. It’s called reciprocal treatment on something as core as the security of our fundamental communications infrastructure. Mr. Turnbull attacked this decision too. Once again, this a matter of documentary record.

Furthermore, I have noticed in Mr. Turnbull’s own history, which he’s readily accepted, is that he himself has engaged in corporate investments in the People’s Republic when there was money to be made. Good on him, I say! Well done! That’s what business people should do. But now it seems those engaging with Chinese businesses, including the Australian Chinese diaspora, are under the cloud of collusion.

So I do scratch my head when things are so recently and radically turned on their head, and when I hear statements from Mr. Turnbull which now say that all these things which he once stood for, he no longer stands for. He now identifies a completely different China to the one he so fully embraced before becoming Prime Minister. Or is it because as Prime Minister he’s under internal political threat within his own party and sees a new, increasingly xenophobic policy towards China and the Australian Chinese diaspora as a useful means by which to consolidate his precarious position domestically? I leave that question for him to answer.

I contrast Turnbull’s approach with our own period of office running what was judged to be a balanced strategic relationship between Australia and the People’s Republic of China – sometimes running into friction, other times not running into friction, but overall ensuring that our respective national interests and values were acknowledged, respected and wherever possible advanced.

What this key relationship, the Australia-China relationship, cannot sustain into the future is a national strategic direction from the Australian government which chops and changes depending on the domestic political fashion, or the perceived domestic political opportunities which may present themselves to the current conservative government.

This is too important a relationship, in all of its complexity, in all of its opportunities, and in all of its challenges, including those of human rights, for us to flip, flop and flap as wilfully as we’ve seen in the last twelve months under Mr. Turnbull.

Therefore, when I heard Mr. Turnbull say most recently, in his interesting attempt to speak Chinese, that ‘澳大利亚人民站起来了 (aodaliya renmin zhan qilai le)’. My response to that is 总理先生,那就是胡说八道 (zongli xiansheng, na jiushi hushuobadao).

Put into English, Malcolm Turnbull said that that “the Australian people have stood up”, seeking to paraphrase what is argued by some to have been a phrase used by Mao Zedong in 1949 中国人民站起来了 (zhongguo renmin zhan qilai le). My response, put into English, is that Turnbull’s remarks are “complete and utter nonsense”.

What we require in the complexity of this Australia-China relationship, given all the differences which exist in terms of human rights and our values as a liberal democracy, yet all our common economic interests, as well as our common and different strategic interests and perspectives in the regional and global order, is a balanced relationship.

And that requires statesmanship on both parts. It is not advanced by chopping and changing depending on what Turnbull perceives to be the domestic political season, including a perceived domestic political opportunity.

When you utter a phrase like 澳大利亚人民站起来了 (aodaliya renmin zhan qilai le), you have one political objective. And that is to invite a reaction from Beijing in order to gain yourself an even bigger headline in the Australian domestic media. That’s what Turnbull sought to do. And that’s exactly what happened. But I’m not sure where it takes us as a nation.

There are big questions and challenges for the Australia-China relationship. It’s hard. It’s complex. That’s the experience of all western, democratic countries dealing with rising China.

But you know something? It’s not helped, it’s not advanced, given all we’ve discussed this evening, by a bunch of simplistic platitudes rendered into third-rate Chinese by a second-rate Prime Minister who should know better. Australia’s enduring national interests certainly demand better.


This version of Mr. Rudd’s remarks has been adapted for print publication.

Link to La Trobe University page.