BBC World: US-China Tensions

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
TV INTERVIEW
BBC WORLD
13 AUGUST 2020

Topics: Foreign Affairs article ‘Beware the Guns of August – in Asia’

Mike Embley
Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement has attracted strong criticism both Washington and Beijing hitting key figures with sanctions and closing consulates in recent weeks. Is that not the only issue where the two countries don’t see eye to eye tensions have been escalating on a range of fronts, including the Chinese handling of the pandemic, the American decision to ban Huawei and Washington’s allegations of human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. So where is all this heading? Let’s try and find out we speak to Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister, of course, now the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. Welcome very good to talk to you. You’ve been very vocal about China’s attitudes to democracy in Hong Kong, also the tit for tat sanctions between the US and China where do you think all this is heading?

Kevin Rudd
Well, if our prism for analysis is where does the US China relationship go? The bottom line is we haven’t seen this relationship in such fundamental disrepair in about half a century. And as a result, whether it’s Hong Kong, or whether it’s Taiwan or events unfolding in the South China Sea, this is pushing the relationship into greater and greater levels of crisis. What concerns those of us who study this professionally. And who know both systems of government reasonably well, both in Beijing and Washington, is that the probability of a crisis unfolding either in the Taiwan Straits or in the South China Sea is now growing. And the probability of escalation is now real into a serious shooting match. And the lesson of history is it’s very difficult to de escalate under those circumstances.

Mike Embley
Yes, I think you’ve spoken in terms of the risk of a hot war, actual war between the US and China. Are you serious?

Kevin Rudd
I am serious and I’ve not said this before. I’ve been a student of US-China relations for the last 35 years. And I’ve I take a genuinely sceptical approach to people who have sounded the alarms in previous periods of the relationship. But those of us who have observed this through the prism of history, I think have got a responsibility to say to decision makers both in Washington and in Beijing right now be careful what you wish for, because this is catapulting in a particular direction. When you look at the South China Sea in particular, there you have a huge amount of metal on metal, that is a large number of American ships and a large number of People’s Liberation Army Navy ships, similar number of aircraft, the rules of engagement, the standard operating procedures of these vessels are unbeknownst to the rest of us, we’ve had near misses before. What I’m pointing to is that if we actually have a collision, or a sinking or a crash, what then ensues in terms of crisis management on both sides when we last had this in 2001 2002 in the Bush administration, the state of the US China relationship was pretty good. Right now 20 years later, it is fundamentally appalling. That’s why many of us are deeply concerned, and are sounding this concern both to Beijing and Washington.

Mike Embley
And yet you know, of course, China is such a power economically and is making its presence felt in so many places in the world. There is a sense that really China can pretty much do what it wants, how do you avoid the kind of situation you’re describing?

Kevin Rudd
Well, the government in Beijing needs to understand the importance of restraint as well in terms of its own calculus of its own long term national interests. And that is China’s current cause of action across a range of fronts is in fact causing a massive international reaction against China now, unprecedented against again, the measures of the last 40 or 50 years. You now have fundamental dislocations in the relationship not just with Washington, but with Canada, with Australia, with United Kingdom, with Japan, with the Republic of Korea, and a whole bunch of others as well, including those in various parts of continental Europe. And so therefore, looking at this from the prism of Beijing’s own interests, there are those in Beijing who will be raising the argument, are we pushing too far too hard, too fast. And the responsibility of the rest of us is to say to that cautionary advice within Beijing, all power to your arm in restraining China from this course of action, but also in equal measure saying into our friends in Washington, particularly in a presidential election season, where Republicans and Democrats are seeking to outflank each other to the right, on China strategy, that this is no time to engage in, shall we say, symbolic acts for a domestic political purpose in the United States presidential election context, which can have real national security consequences in Southeast Asia and then globally.

Mike Embley
Mr. Rudd, you say very clearly what you hope will happen what you hope China will realize, what do you think actually will happen? Are you optimistic in a nutshell or pessimistic?

Kevin Rudd
The reason for me writing the piece I’ve just done in Foreign Affairs Magazine, which is entitled “Beware The Guns of August”, for those of us obviously familiar with what happened in August of 1914. Is that on balance I am pessimistic, that the political cultures in both capitals right now are fully seized of the risks that they are playing with on the high seas and over Taiwan as well. Hong Kong, the matters you were referring to before, frankly, add further to the deterioration of the surrounding political relationship between the two countries. But in terms of incendiary actions of a national security nature, it’s events in the Taiwan straits and it’s events on the high seas in the South China Sea, which are most likely to trigger this. And to answer your question directly right now, until we see the other side of the US presidential election. I remain on balance concerned and pessimistic.

Mike Embley
Right. Kevin Rudd Thank you very much for talking to us.

Kevin Rudd
Good to be with you.