CNN, FIRST MOVE
11 AUGUST 2020
Topics: Foreign Affairs article; US-China tech war
In a sobering assessment in Foreign Affairs magazine, the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd warns that diplomatic relations are crumbling and raise the possibility of armed conflict. Mr Rudd, who is president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, joins us live now. So Mr Rudd, just walk us through this. You believe that armed conflict is possible and, is this relationship at this point, in your opinion, quite frankly, beyond repair?
It’s not beyond repair, but we’ve got to be blunt about the fact that the level of deterioration has been virtually unprecedented at least in the last half-century. And things are moving at a great pace in terms of the scenarios, the two scenarios which trouble us most are the Taiwan straits and the South China Sea. In the Taiwan straits, we see consistent escalation of tensions between Washington and Beijing. And certainly, in the South China Sea, the pace and intensity of naval and air activity in and around that region increases the possibility, the real possibility, of collisions at sea and collisions in the air. And the question then becomes: do Beijing and Washington really have an intention to de-escalate or then to escalate, if such a crisis was to unfold?
How do they de-escalate? Is the only way at this point, or how do they reverse the sort of tensions between them? Is the main way at this point that, you know, a new administration comes in in November and it can be reset? If Trump gets re-elected, can there be de-escalation? If so, how?
Well the purpose of my writing the article in Foreign Affairs, which you referred to before, was to, in fact, talk about the real dangers we face in the next three months. That is, before the US presidential election. We all know that in the US right now, that tensions or, shall I say, political pressure on President Trump are acute. But what people are less familiar of within the West is the fact that in Chinese politics there is also pressure on Xi Jinping for a range of domestic and external reasons as well. So what I have simply said is: in this next three months, where we face genuine political pressure operating on both political leaders, if we do have an incident, that is an unplanned incident or collision in the air or at sea, we now have a tinderbox environment. Therefore, the plans which need to be put in place between the grown-ups in the US and Chinese militaries is to have a mechanism to rapidly de-escalate should a collision occur. I’m not sure that those plans currently exist.
Let’s talk about tech because President Donald Trump, as you know, is forcing ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, to sell its assets and no longer operate in the US. The premise is that there are national security fears and also this idea that TikTok is handing over user data from American citizens to the Chinese government. How real and concrete are those fears, or is this purely politically motivated? Are the fears justified, in other words?
As far as TikTok is concerned, this is way beyond my paygrade in terms of analysing the technological capacities of a) the company and b) the ability of the Chinese security authorities to backdoor them. What I can say is this a deliberate decision on the part of the US administration to radically escalate the technology war. In the past, it was a war about Huawei and 5G. It then became an unfolding conflict over the question of the future access to semiconductors, computer chips. And now we have, as it were, the unfolding ban imposed by the administration on Chinese-sourced computer apps, including this one, for TikTok. So this is a throwing-down of the gauntlet by the US administration. What I believe we will see, however, is Chinese retaliation. I think they will find a corporate mechanism to retaliate, given the actions taken not just against ByteDance and TikTok, but of course against WeChat. And so the pattern of escalation that we were talking about earlier in technology, the economy, trade, investment, finance, and the hard stuff in national security continues to unfold, which is why we need sober heads to prevail in the months ahead.