LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Mr Rudd, thanks for your time this evening.
KEVIN RUDD, FORMER PRIME MINISTER: It is good to be with you.
LEIGH SALES: Before we look at China, just on the SAS war crimes allegations which were the trigger for this latest round of tit-for-tat between Australia and China, how long lasting and widespread do you think that the ripples of that will be for Australia’s reputation?
KEVIN RUDD: They will be significant, but all militated by the fact that we have had more than 20,000 Australian troops serving with distinction in Afghanistan and this represents a tiny minority.
And furthermore, it says something about the Australian society and our free media and our investigative media that this was able to be exposed in a country like Australia.
So, the world will be concerned, but they will see that we are dealing with these issues unlike many countries who just sweep these matters under the carpet.
LEIGH SALES: On the Chinese tweet alluding to those alleged war crimes, what do you think China was trying to do there?
KEVIN RUDD: Well, it strikes me as one of the more blatant examples of what is now referred to routinely as “wolf warrior diplomacy” and that is where you have got this new breed of young diplomats in the making in Beijing or non-diplomats, as I call them, who want to hairy chest their way into early promotion by the Chinese Communist Party, but this particular exercise, I think it falls foul of being inherently offensive because you’re impugning the reputation of 20,000 diggers who did a great job in Afghanistan on the basis of 32 who didn’t do the right thing.
Secondly, it is hypocritical because our free and independent media have found this stuff out. In China the role of the PLA in Tiananmen and the mowing down of hundreds and probably thousands of students remains a state secret.
But more importantly, on top of those two factors, it is counterproductive, because not only do you unite all Australians against this most recent assault by the Chinese propaganda apparatus, China runs a real risk of causing allies and the United States to side with Australia in a broader act of solidarity in responding to China’s muscling up on issues like this.
LEIGH SALES: How would you describe the current state of the Australia-China relationship?
KEVIN RUDD: Well, it is in the pits and if there was a sub-basement to the pits, that’s where it is.
Certainly, as someone who has been active in US-China relations and Australia-China relations for all of my adult life, since I was at university way back when, this is the lowest it has ever reached, but to be fair to Prime Minister Morrison who is in the hot seat right now, dealing with the structural dynamics of the Australia-China relationship has always been hard.
It is becoming progressively harder as China’s power in the overall balance of power with the United States, economically and militarily changes in China’s favour, causing China to become more assertive about its policy interests around the world and therefore, to flex its muscle in dealing with allies of the United States.
We’re not the first cab off the rank here. Other allies like Norway, Japan, the Philippines, Canada, have been through a similar experience, but this one is probably the granddaddy of them all given the breadth of the assault on Australia’s trade interests because China is politically unhappy with the tone and content of Australia’s foreign policy posture.
LEIGH SALES: You say it is getting to be a progressively harder relationship to manage. Why do you think things have disintegrated to this degree?
KEVIN RUDD: Well, I think if you try to stand back from it all and just lift ourselves above outrage politics for the moment and try to analyse what’s actually going on here, the Chinese are pushing hard because they have got more power and they are doing that with countries around the world. I think that’s the first thing.
The second is the Chinese in their own domestic system have this long-standing traditional axiom which in Chinese is kill one, to warn 100 and they have sought so do this with other allies before, unsuccessfully in my view, but they still keep doing it.
But then there is a third element in all this as well which is not just the structure of dealing with this rising giant which is also an authoritarian state. It is an Australian Government too, under the conservatives, which I think continues to mix the substance of our real policy disagreements with Beijing with also questions of style and the predisposition on the part of conservative government ministers including the Prime Minister from time to time to take out the megaphone when it is perhaps not objectively necessary to do so and for fear of being characterised by the Murdoch media therefore as being some sort of appeaser of Beijing.
That’s not my argument at all, it is that we should be doing more and frankly speaking less about the relationship; enhancing our substantive national security interests and standing while at the same time being less predisposed to putting out a press release on it every second Tuesday.
LEIGH SALES: We heard earlier from a wine producer who is losing 95 per cent of his export market because of the Chinese tariffs that have been imposed. You’ve outlined there some broad ways that you think we could get out of this but what would be the concrete steps that can immediately be taken to try to find a way back?
KEVIN RUDD: Look, I think in term of finding a way through this, which is where most rationally minded Australians want to go, there is three or four things probably which need to be done.
Number one is, there has to be a restabilisation of the Australia-China relationship, but the bottom line is that will not occur in the absence of a restabilisation of the US-China relationship. Now under president-elect Biden, that’s possible.
And therefore, the first thing to do for Prime Minister Morrison is to work closely, not just with the outgoing Trump administration but the incoming Biden administration to insist that any restabilisation of Washington-Beijing accommodates a restabilitation of Canberra-Beijing and frankly, Ottawa-Beijing as well.
In other words, not to let the allies sit out there like shags on a rock.
I think the second thing is in terms of the interests of the wine growers that you’re talking about, Australia needs to coalition build with other like-minded countries.
That’s why if this application to the World Trade Organization for a dispute against China’s actions proceeds, Australia needs to coalition build with other countries to ensure that we prevail in that dispute unless, of course, China withdraws its current trade actions.
There is a final point too. If those things happen, then there should be a tacit agreement through high level diplomacy or through diplomatic intermediaries for both sides, Beijing and Canberra, to put the megaphone away and put the substantive disagreements back to where they belong which is in the normal channels and processes of diplomacy.
That, I think, is the best way through for those who are receiving the sharp edge of this currently in terms of Australian exporters.
LEIGH SALES: You mentioned Norway, Canada, other nations that have had tensions with China. Among Australia’s allies, are there any countries you can point as an example which effectively manage their relationship with China? That is getting the balance right between cooperation and constructive criticism and protecting their national sovereignty.
KEVIN RUDD: I think Prime Minister Morrison would be well-advised to look closely at Japan particularly over the last three years or so.
If I’ve got a critique of the way in which Mr Morrison has handled the Chinese relationship, it is Australia under the conservatives has an attitude about China, but not yet a strategy for dealing with China.
When I look at Japan under both Prime Minister Abe who only recently retired and now under Prime Minister Suga, if you reflect on it carefully, you have got a Japan which is:
A) an ally of United States, America’s closest ally in Asia if you like.
B) You have got American troops based in large numbers in Japan.
C) You have got a country which has active territorial disputes running with China as well on the East China Sea on Senkaku/Diaoyu and;
D) you have got a massive economic relationship whereby Japan finds in China its largest trading partner as well.
So at least in the last three to four years what I see is a Japanese government under two prime ministers able to manage that, prosecute their substantive hard-line national security interests in relation to China and at the same time, not go through this massive rollercoaster ride over the last three years in terms of the dynamics of the bilateral relationship or a new range of punitive sanctions and remember Japan like Australia is also a member of the Quad.
So I think there is something to be learned from the Japanese playbook in recent years about how to manage this – do more, talk less. That’s the Japanese formula.
LEIGH SALES: Kevin Rudd, thank you.
KEVIN RUDD: Good to be with you.