Kevin Rudd is the inaugural president of the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI). A former prime minister and foreign minister of Australia, he began his career as a diplomat and is a lifelong China scholar and fluent Mandarin speaker. As a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, he recently completed a policy paper on “Alternative Futures for US-China Relations.”
The Diplomat sat down with Rudd in New York City to discuss his thoughts on current developments in Asia, particularly China, and his vision for ASPI over the coming years.
You have been described as one of the few Western political leaders who have a good understanding of China. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment?
I wouldn’t criticize my colleagues around the world, because they’ve all got areas of expertise they bring to their various positions of leadership…(however) the challenge for everyone in the world today is to become intelligently China-literate. What drives Chinese domestic policy? What drives Chinese international policy? How does the world look through Beijing’s eyes?
I think people have been slow to catch up with the dimensions of the Chinese reality. China, depending on the measure, is either the world’s largest or second-largest economy, so it doesn’t matter what region of the world you’re talking about, I run into people from the Caribbean, from America, from Africa, from the Middle East and within 30 seconds the conversation turns to China, because this is a huge global economy at work.
Just as the world has had to understand America comprehensively over the last 70 years, so too does the world need to begin to understand China comprehensively. And that’s not simple. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything that China does. Most people in the world in the last 70 years have taken as an assumption that you need to understand the American worldview. Well it’s now useful to understand the Chinese worldview, even if you happen to disagree with parts of it.
Would you agree that the task of understanding China has become more complicated because most global attention is focused on security challenges, such as international terrorism?
The problem with the global China engagement, or global affairs in general, is it tends to turn into the sound one hand clapping. So we’ve got a global problem with ISIS/ISIL or we’ve got a problem with the Ukraine, or we have a global problem with the South China Sea. What I’m saying is that the world increasingly needs to be able to walk and chew gum and be able to deal with a multiplicity of security challenges at the same time, a multiplicity of economic challenges…other challenges which are in the climate change domain, and also globally communicable diseases.
The expectation of modern states in a globalizing world is that we have sufficient statecraft to not just go to simple solutions saying “my country, right or wrong” or “foreign policy is exotica,” but into a sophisticated worldview which says “we are integrally linked to everything that happens in the world today and therefore we need to have a global view.” China is such a large part of the global reality. For me it’s axiomatic that people understand China’s worldview.
Is part of the challenge to bring China more into that larger debate on security? There is a lot of talk about its challenges regarding its own Muslim population, as well as what obligations it has in the fight elsewhere.
To be fair to the Chinese, let’s go through the list. Number one: In the last decade China’s become the largest single military contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations in the world, not many people know that, and about one fifth of all UN peacekeepers now come from China. Number two is anti-piracy in the gulf and China’s been contributing its naval forces to that for the last half decade plus. Number three, if you look carefully at the public statements from the Chinese government on counterterrorism, these are becoming increasingly robust as they face the challenge domestically themselves and I think the Chinese are open to new and broader forms of cooperative endeavor.
I think the challenge for the West is to accept that a terrorist attack in China is just as unacceptable as an attack anywhere else. There’s not an acceptable terrorist in Xinjiang, an acceptable terrorist attack in Chechnya, and an unacceptable terrorist attack in London.
Switching tack, what do you make of the China-U.S. climate change deal of late last year?
What’s significant…is that the Chinese, for the first time, nominated their peaking year for carbon emissions (in 2030) and the quantum of their peaking year. These two things China had not done before. That brings pressure to the rest of the developing world to do the same and also on recalcitrant Western countries. I think the second thing is that in the communiqué between [U.S. President Barack] Obama and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping they speak definitively of a combined resolve to bring about a positive agreement in Paris [the site of UN climate change talks later this year], so I think it’s one part of the U.S.-China relationship which has grown strongly.
If China is becoming a model for developing countries, what does this mean for the failure of India to come to some sort of similar arrangement with the U.S. when President Obama met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January? Are India’s claims to have different climate responsibilities because of its comparative development levels valid?
Well, China’s still got a long way to go, but India’s process is only just beginning and India has come to these negotiations in a cooperative frame of mind later than China. China’s undertaken a U-turn in its national and international policy on climate change in the last three years. I think we can only say that that has happened in India with the election of Modi, which is less than a year ago. So they’ve got a lot of work to do, but what I find in India is an appetite to be constructive. I imagine the bilateral talks between Obama and Modi are now underway in order to bring about more concrete Indian commitments well before Paris.
Having turned to India, do you think there is enough focus on other nations in Asia within policy and political circles? How will you and ASPI hope to reflect the diversity of the region?
Well there are three and a half billion people in Asia and 1.4 billion of them are Chinese, but 1.2 or 1.3 billion are Indian, which is why my first visit as the president of ASPI will be to Delhi. I’ll be spending at least three days in Delhi with government ministers and officials on what we as the Asia Society Policy Institute can do to support their major policy challenges.
For me, we look at Asia through five lenses: Northeast Asia and all the complexities with those three [countries], Southeast Asia and all the complexities with those 10, South Asia, of which India is central, then you have Southwest and West Asia, otherwise called the Middle East, and anywhere from Turkey down to the Gulf states, and finally Central Asia and the five republics, plus Russia and Mongolia. So for us we actually see this through this complex lens…we take Asia in all of its diversity seriously.
A big focus of the institute’s current work seems to be the democratic transition in Myanmar. How do you rate the progress there?
I was the first Western foreign minister to go into Myanmar after about 20 years. I did so in 2011, and helped broker the normalization of engagement with the collective West. At this time we were getting the regime to cooperate with Aung San Suu Kyi to become a full participant, with appropriate protection, in the Burmese electoral process. It’s a difficult transition and it’s difficult to predict how it will turn out. Of course we would all hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to participate directly in the elections. That remains unknown, but I think it will be very useful for the global credibility of the government in Myanmar if she could.
Japan is also very much in the news at present, with questions over its changing security dynamics and its mixed economic fortunes. What are your thoughts on where the country might be headed?
I think a key challenge facing our friends in Japan is the future of the Japanese economy and whether, having secured his reelection, (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe can fire the third arrow of his domestic reform, which is effectively regulatory microeconomic reform. We would hope so and I think the rest of the region would hope so as well. I think geopolitically Japan has decided together with the Chinese to calm things down on either side of Senkaku/Diayou and I think that’s to everyone’s collective advantage.
Beyond that Japan is involved in the region’s principal multilateral institutions and there’s a big role for it to carve out. There’s a balance to be struck with reengagement on the one hand and the continuing difficulties that arise from its war history on the other. I would hope the Japanese would be able to walk and chew gum as well.
Finally, how would you sum up your key priorities for ASPI?
The areas I would like to focus on are: How do we continue to evolve the wider Asia-Pacific’s economic and security architecture in order to not just accommodate China’s rise but to manage the security tensions that inevitably come from new powers emerging? Secondly, we will maintain a close focus on the evolution of the debate over the future of the Korean Peninsula and what is useful there, with Seoul and Pyongyang, with the United States and China. Thirdly, we are acutely conscious of the significance of Joko Widodo’s election in Indonesia and the entrenchment of the stable transition process in that country, and what we can do to assist in its wider regional leadership…I have a particular passion for Indonesia as a long-standing friend.
If I was to look at India, (I would ask) is it possible to work with our friends in India and with our friends in China on developing common approaches to climate change? That would be useful. In the wider Middle East, I think the Asia Society will remain engaged with the ongoing dialogue with Iran. And as for Central Asia, I think there will be active discussions with the Kazakhs and others with what will be useful in their part of the world as well…The focus is on policy processes that improve natural and regional circumstances against where they were.