The rise of China, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic present challenges and opportunities for the Indo-Pacific region. For a perspective on these matters, Jongsoo Lee interviews Kevin Rudd, president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former prime minister (2007-2010, 2013) and foreign minister (2010-2012) of Australia.
In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic slowed or accelerated the rise of China?
It’s clear that COVID-19 has negatively shaped attitudes to China around the world, not least as a result of the government’s secrecy around the original outbreak at the very start of the year. And it’s clear that this shook Xi Jinping’s leadership in ways he did not expect. But it’s doubtful that this has changed Xi’s fundamental worldview much at all. And while China’s economy was hit the hardest it has been since the Cultural Revolution, it has already bounced back stronger than any other country and is going to be crucial for the rest of the world’s own economic resurgence. The challenge is how they continue to manage the impact to their own standing and then navigate the greater fallout across many parts of the region and the West in particular.
Apart from the COVID-19 pandemic, what are the top challenges to security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond? And what are the solutions?
Above all else: climate change. Hopefully, if anything, COVID-19 will leave us with a greater propensity to confront large and complex challenges such as this, especially in our region, which is particularly sensitive to both its immediate and long-term impacts. If governments are also smart in calibrating their economic response to COVID-19, there is also a chance we can emerge from this crisis better placed to decarbonize our economies and bolster our climate resilience. The problem in much of the Indo-Pacific at the moment is that there is a temptation amongst governments to shortsightedly see a carbon-heavy recovery as the best route rather than casting their minds on the transformational opportunity before them to re-gear their economies.
The increasing assertiveness of a rising China is a source of concern to the global community. Why is China being increasingly assertive? Are there domestic or international forces driving China to become more assertive? Is China on an expansionist trajectory like Japan was in the 1930s?
Xi Jinping has never subscribed to Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead.” His approach is much more forthright, and we see that through multiple manifestations. For example, Xi clearly seeks to secure benign and (when possible) compliant relationships with China’s 14 neighboring states and six maritime neighbors. At the same time, Xi believes that he must push back the U.S. to the “second island chain” that runs from the Japanese archipelago through Guam to the eastern Philippines. China also wants to weaken (or sever, if possible) America’s longstanding security alliances in the region, and the ultimate objective here is to enhance China’s capacity to secure reunification with Taiwan – by force, if necessary. Finally, Xi seeks to establish new markets for Chinese goods, services, technology, and critical infrastructure investments through the Belt and Road Initiative, and in so doing enhance sensitivities and support for China’s core foreign-policy interests – with the ultimate goal of helping to reshape the global order to be more accommodating towards China’s interests and values.
How can India, the United States, and China’s neighbors in the Indo-Pacific work together more effectively to manage the rise of China?
The big challenge for democracies around the world – both in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond – is to increase the sophistication of their engagement with China, including through greater coordination. It might be hard for individual countries to take a stand on issues for fear of bilateral blowback, but doing so together helps mitigate this. Remarkably, there is still a tendency for many democracies to see the challenges in their own China relationships as unique and seek to navigate them as such. In Australia, we see this constantly with the widespread perception that our country alone has incurred Beijing’s wrath over particular matters, when in reality we often forget that others are dealing with equally and often far more complex challenges as well – not least Japan trying to balance a territorial dispute amongst a massive economic relationship.
For the United States’ part, I’ve written elsewhere that we have likely entered a new era of what I call “Cold War 1.5.” But the future of this relationship need not necessarily continue to spiral downwards – in my view it can be managed strategically through agreed guardrails established by both sides, or what I call “managed strategic competition.”
Are there things China has been doing that have positive effects on peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond?
It’s important to remember that not that long ago, China was a recipient of foreign aid and now is one of the world’s largest donors. Yes, there are significant and legitimate concerns about how this support is often doled out, but that support has also helped countries achieve their own development objectives.
It’s also worth noting the geopolitical importance of China’s climate leadership in recent years. As someone that was part of the fractious Copenhagen negotiations, I can tell you from experience how transformational this has been for the global fight against climate change. There would quite simply be no Paris Agreement without China, and it is China that deserves the most credit for holding that framework together after [U.S.] President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from it. What is important now is that China continues to see the value domestically and geopolitically for its climate leadership, and that along with every other country seeks to build on its Paris target by the time of the next UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, irrespective of whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump is occupying the Oval Office.
Is there a unique role for Australia and New Zealand to play in promoting peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific?
Absolutely. The problem for Australia is that, while in the past we have often tried to play an active and constructive role in our region and understood the importance of our geography to our future, the current conservative government seems hell bent on eroding the diplomatic tools that make this possible and continually allows their hearts and minds to be governed by our history.
Take, for example. Australia’s aid budget: my government announced record-level increases in the face of the global financial crisis, but even before COVID-19 struck, it had been cut down to an all-time low. And just this month we have seen cuts to our foreign service at a time when we have announced major new investments in our defense capability. At one level, this might be about sending a signal to China, but it is not lost on the other countries in the region – especially in the Pacific islands where we seek to be the “partner of choice” but also fail to accept the existential risk that climate change poses to them.
Jongsoo Lee is senior managing director at Brock Securities and center associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004