Interview: Kevin Rudd

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Interview: Kevin Rudd

The former Australian prime minister on China’s rise, U.S.-China relations, and Australia’s role in the Asia-Pacific.

Interview: Kevin Rudd
Credit: Eva Rinaldi

Kevin Rudd is the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI). Prior to that, as Australia’s prime minister (2007-2010, 2013) and foreign minister (2010-2012), Rudd was active in regional and global foreign policy leadership; he is said to be a possible contender for the role of secretary general of the United Nations. He began his career as a diplomat and is a lifelong China scholar and fluent Mandarin speaker. The Diplomat recently interviewed the former prime minister on China’s rise and a changing world order

The Diplomat: A bipolar world order is currently emerging, with the U.S. in the West and China in the East. What challenges does this transition bring to the fore?

Kevin Rudd: The future of the world order is the central question of international relations. Strategic thinkers in Beijing and Washington understand this. But reconciling the vastly different Chinese and Western notions of order remains a core challenge. Beijing has not yet articulated a clear blueprint for the future of the global order, but its outlines are clear. In unusually sharp language, Xi Jinping announced that China was engaged in “a struggle for the international” order in 2014. Xi lays great emphasis on “multipolarity,” understood as a transition away from the United States’ brief “unipolar moment.” We are not yet in a bipolar world order, as existed during the Cold War. But the danger of a bifurcation of world order into two camps is real and growing. A long-term power shift from West to East would challenge almost every preconception Westerners have grown up with. Above all, it would challenge Washington and Beijing to work together to sustain, strengthen, and reform the existing global rules-based order against forces seeking to erode it.

One of the first things you did as prime minister of Australia was to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Last December, the Paris Climate Agreement was signed, marking a good example of how global powers can forge a common future together. In what other specific areas do you think it is important for the U.S. and China to join hands to shape a more stable 21st century?

The growing U.S.-China partnership helped make the Paris Agreement possible, and shaped what it ultimately became. Since late 2014 the U.S. and China have pursued increasingly cooperative steps to reduce their emissions, and in doing so they are sending signals to their peers that they take climate change very seriously. Given the size of the American and Chinese economies and their capacities to lead innovation, scaling up the U.S.-China partnership is among the single greatest imperatives for facing the global climate change challenge. They can do so by working to remove intellectual property barriers to technology sharing, advancing trade in renewable energy sectors, and continuously ramping up their emissions reduction goals.

The American dream, and more recently the Chinese dream, are well known. You have spoken about a dream for all humankind. What is your vision on this dream and how does it relate to China? 

The spirit of the American dream is well-known, the Chinese Dream has begun to emerge, and how China and the U.S. can work together to achieve a “Dream for All” would be of significant relevance for us all. How Beijing and Washington shape their future does not just affect those two countries. It affects all of us, in ways perhaps we have never thought of: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the fish we eat, the quality of our oceans, the languages we speak in the future, the jobs we have, the political systems we choose, and of course, the great question of war and peace.

How can we craft a basis for a common future between these two? I argue simply this: we can do it on the basis of a framework of constructive realism for a common purpose. Such a framework would allow the U.S. and China to be realistic about the things that they disagree on and keep those matters from sparking conflict or otherwise harming the relationship. Even though the U.S. and China cannot resolve all their differences in the short term, they can still be constructive in areas of the bilateral, regional, and global engagement. If they can do that, then they can realize “a dream for all humankind.”

In your view, how ought Australia respond to the shifting great power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific? Can the nation serve as a stabilizing factor between the U.S. and China? How would you define Australia’s role in a bipolar world order?

To your first point, Australia’s role, at its best, is to represent the East in the West, and the West in the East. The greatest geopolitical transformation since the Second World War is happening on Australia’s doorstep. Regarding U.S.-China relations, Australia should not aspire to act as an intermediary in their bilateral relations. Rather, it should seek to minimize the areas of strategic competition with respect to its own diplomatic actions, for example by acting as a bridge for defense diplomacy to build confidence, trust, and transparency. On your final point, it is premature to speak of a bipolar world order. Bipolarity certainly characterized the world order during the Cold War, with colossal military, economic, and political might concentrated in Washington, Moscow, and their respective camps. This is not true of 2016, which is moving toward greater multipolarity in international affairs. It is the role of every prudent state, including Australia, to ensure that the world order does not return to the bipolar structure and zero-sum logic of the Cold War. 

Australia has signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was initiated by the U.S. Australia is also part of negotiations with its lesser known equivalent, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). China has been seen as the key driver of the RCEP. What does Australia’s participation in both trade pacts say about its stance in the Asia-Pacific, as there seems to be a competition between the TPP and RCEP?   

The bifurcation of trading blocs in the Asia-Pacific is a significant challenge for regional integration. Traditionally, the liberalization of trade has been a unifying force in world politics. Now, the proliferation of alternative trade agendas, including the TPP and RCEP, raises the risk of further fracturing Asia economically and, ultimately, geopolitically. For this reason, the Asia Society Policy Institute, which I head, is working on proposals to ensure that the region is not pulled apart by centrifugal economic forces. Australia, like other regional middle powers, has a decisive interest to ensure that this not be the case. It’s not a choice between the TPP and RCEP. The choice is between economic integration and disintegration.