ABC RN: South China Sea

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
RADIO INTERVIEW
RN BREAKFAST
ABC RADIO NATIONAL
5 AUGUST 2020

Fran Kelly
Prime Minister Scott Morrison today will warn of the unprecedented militarization of the Indo-Pacific which he says has become the epicentre of strategic competition between the US and China. In his virtual address to the Aspen Security Forum in the United States, Scott Morrison will also condemn the rising frequency of cyber attacks and the new threats democratic nations are facing from foreign interference. This speech coincides with a grim warning from former prime minister Kevin Rudd that the threat of armed conflict in the region is especially high in the run-up to the US presidential election in November. Kevin Rudd, welcome back to breakfast.

Kevin Rudd
Thanks for having me on the program, Fran.

Fran Kelly
Kevin Rudd, you’ve written in the Foreign Affairs journal that the US-China tensions could lead to, quote, a hot war not just a cold one. That conflict, you say, is no longer unthinkable. It’s a fairly alarming assessment. Just how likely do you rate the confrontation in the Indo-Pacific other coming three or four months?

Kevin Rudd
Well, Fran, I think it’s important to narrow our geographical scope here. Prime Minister Morrison is talking about a much wider theatre. My comments in Foreign Affairs are about crisis scenarios emerging over what will happen or could happen in Hong Kong over the next three months leading up to the presidential election. And I think things in Hong Kong are more likely to get worse than better. What’s happening in relation to the Taiwan Straits where things have become much sharper than before in terms of actions on both sides, that’s the Chinese and the United States. But the thrust of my article is that the real problem area in terms of crisis management, crisis escalation, etc, lies in the South China Sea. And what I simply try to pull together is the fact that we now have a much greater concentration of military hardware, ships at sea, aircraft flying reconnaissance missions, together with changes in deployments by the Chinese fighters and bombers now into the actual Paracel Islands themselves in the north part of the South China Sea. Together with the changes in the declaratory postures of both sides. So what I do in this article this pull these threads together and say to both sides: be careful what you wish for; you’re playing with fire.

Fran Kelly
And when you talk about a heightened risk of armed conflict, or you’re talking about a being confined to a flare-up in one very specific location like the South China Sea?

Kevin Rudd
What I try to do is to go to where could a crisis actually emerge?

Fran Kelly
Yeah.

Kevin Rudd
If you go across the whole spectrum of conflicts, at the moment between China and the United States on a whole range of policies, all roads tend to lead back to the South China Sea because it’s effectively a ruleless environment at the moment. We have contested views of both territorial and maritime sovereignty. And that’s where my concern, Fran, is that we have a crisis, which comes about through a collision at sea, a collision in the air, and given the nationalist politics now in Washington because of the presidential election, but also the nationalist politics in China, as its own leadership go to their annual August retreat, Beidaihe, that it’s a very bad admixture which could result in a crisis for allies like Australia, which have treaty obligations with the United States through the ANZUS treaty. This is a deeply concerning set of developments because if the crisis erupts, what then does the Australian government do?

Fran Kelly
Well, what does it do in your view from your viewpoint as a former Prime Minister. You know Australia tries to walk a very fine line by Washington and Beijing. That’s proved very difficult lately, but we are in the ANZUS alliance. Would we need to get involved militarily?

Kevin Rudd
Let me put it in these terms: Australia, like other countries dealing with China’s greater regional and international assertiveness, has had to adjust its strategy. We can have a separate debate, Fran, about what that strategy should be across the board in terms of the economy, technology, Huawei in the rest. But what I’ve sought to do in this article is go specifically to the possibility of a national security crisis. Now, if I was Prime Minister Morrison, what I’d be doing in the current circumstances is taking out the fire hose to those in Washington and to the extent that you can to those in Beijing, and simply make it as plain as possible through private diplomacy and public statements, the time has come for de-escalation because the obligations under the treaty, Fran, to go to your direct question, are relatively clear. What it says in one of the operational clauses of the ANZUS treaty of 1951 is that if the armed forces of either of the contracting parties, namely Australia or the United States, come under attack in the Pacific area, then the allies shall meet and consult to meet the common danger. That, therefore, puts us as an Australian ally directly into this frame. Hence my call for people to be very careful about the months which lie ahead.

Fran Kelly
In terms of ‘the time has come for de-escalation’, that message, do we see signs that that was the message very clearly being given by the Foreign Minister and the Defense Minister when they’re in Washington last week? Marise Payne didn’t buy into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s very elevated rhetoric aimed at China, kept a distance there. And is it your view that this danger period will be over come the first Tuesday in November, the presidential election?

Kevin Rudd
I think when we looking at the danger of genuine armed conflict between China and United States, that is now with us for a long period of time, whoever wins in November, including under the Democrats. What I’m more concerned about, however, is given that President Trump is in desperate domestic political circumstances at present in Washington, and that there will be a temptation to continue to elevate. And also domestic politics are playing their role in China itself where Xi Jinping is under real pressure because of the state of the Chinese economy because of COVID and a range of other factors. On Australia, you asked directly about what Marise Payne was doing in Washington. I think finally the penny dropped with Prime Minister Morrison and Foreign Minister Payne that the US presidential election campaign strategy was beginning to directly influence the content of rational national security policy. I think wisely they decided to step back slightly from that.

Fran Kelly
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is our guest. Kevin Rudd, this morning Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, is addressing the US Aspen Security Forum. He’s also talking about rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific. He’s pledged that Australia won’t be a bystander, quote, who will leave it to others in the region. He wants other like-minded democracies of the region to step up and act in some kind of alliance. Is that the best way to counter Beijing’s rising aggression and assertiveness?

Kevin Rudd
Well, Prime Minister Morrison seems to like making speeches but I’ve yet to see evidence of a coherent Australian national China strategy in terms of what the government is operationally doing as opposed to what it continues to talk about. So my concern on his specific proposal is: what are you doing, Mr Morrison? The talk of an alliance I think is misplaced. The talk of, shall we say, a common policy approach to the challenges which China now represents, that is an entirely appropriate course of action and something which we sought to do during our own period in government, but it’s a piece of advice which Morrison didn’t bother listening to himself when he unilaterally went out and called for an independent global investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Far wiser, if Morrison had taken his own counsel and brought together a coalition of the policy willing first and said: do we have a group of 10 robust states standing behind this proposal? And the reason for that, Fran, is that makes it much harder then for Beijing to unilaterally pick off individual countries.

Fran Kelly
Kevin Rudd, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.

Kevin Rudd
Good to be with you, Fran.

Fran Kelly
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He’s president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, and the article that he’s just penned is in the Foreign Affairs journal.