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Australian Ambassador says ‘this ain’t a Cold War’ with China

Kevin Rudd (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade/WikiCommons)

Relations with China dominated much of the discussion during a Monday appearance by Australian Ambassador Kevin Rudd at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Relations with China dominated much of the discussion during a Monday appearance by Australian Ambassador Kevin Rudd at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Honolulu think tank Pacific Forum and the Australian Consulate hosted the event in which Rudd, a diplomat and politician who previously served twice as Australia’s prime minister, discussed his country’s foreign policies and issues in the Pacific. Rudd, who studied in Taiwan as a student and worked as a diplomat at Australia’s embassy in Beijing during the 1980s, acknowledged that tensions are high. But he pushed back on the notion that the U.S. and China are engaged in a new Cold War.

“This ain’t a Cold War, ” Rudd said. “The Cold War against the Soviet Union was daggers drawn everywhere with the nuclear arsenals primed, mutually assured destruction, proxy wars raging around the world, plus zero economic engagement.”

He noted that while Beijing is growing its nuclear arsenal and the U.S. and China are competing for influence around the globe, he argued that competition has been largely bloodless and that “the United States remains China’s largest trading partner and China remains a major trading partner of the United States. So for those reasons, we should be careful about using language which simply creates a trajectory for the future.”

He said that while U.S.-China relations “could degenerate in that direction, ” he doesn’t think “that’s an objective descriptor right now.”

American officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, have visited China recently in an effort to cool tensions between the two countries. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry visited Beijing this week in an effort to restart climate talks, while former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who played a key role in establishing relations between the U.S. and China during the Cold War, met with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu.

“We, like the United States, are seeking to stabilize our relationship with Beijing, ” Rudd said. “Obviously, there are vast differences in underpinning values and underpinning national interests, but we have been seeking for some time now to stabilize our relationship with Beijing to the extent that that’s possible.”

A major sticking point in that relationship has been the fate of Taiwan, a self-ruled island dem ­ocracy that Beijing considers a rogue province.

A visit to Taiwan last summer by then-House Speaker U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi drew swift condemnation from China, which cut off defense and climate talks with the U.S. in response. Since then, several other lawmakers from the U.S. and other countries, have visited Taiwan.

Rudd said that when he first went to Taiwan as a student, it was still a military dictatorship that had been established by exiled Chinese nationalists that lost the Chinese Civil War. Since then, the country has democratized and developed a high-tech economy. It’s currently a top producer of semiconductor chips that many companies rely on to make their products work, and is a key trade partner for the U.S. and Australia.

But since then China also has changed, growing into an economic and military superpower. Its current leader, Xi Jinping, has called for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation ” by 2049—the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Xi took power in 2012 and recently changed the PRC’s governing laws to abolish term limits, allowing him to potentially be ruler for life. Rudd, who interacted with Xi as Australian prime minister, said the Chinese leader “sees himself in my judgment as a man of destiny … (he ) believes it’s his destiny to restore China to national and international greatness.”

Under Xi’s rule, China has invested heavily in its navy—which is now the world’s largest by many estimates—and has stepped up its operations in disputed regions of the South China Sea. Beijing considers nearly the entire sea—a critical waterway that more than a third of all international trade travels through—to be its exclusive sovereign territory over the objections of its neighbors.

A 2016 international court ruling in favor of the Philippines found that China’s expansive claims had “no legal basis, ” but Beijing has doubled down building bases on disputed islands and reefs to assert its claims and Chinese ships have at times harassed and attacked fishermen and other maritime workers from neighboring countries. According to Chinese state media, during a 2018 visit by U.S. officials to China, Xi told the Americans that when it comes to the South China Sea “we cannot lose even 1 inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors.”

Regional leaders are concerned that blockades or a breakout of fighting at sea could disrupt busy shipping lanes and upend the global economy. The Taiwan Strait is one of the busiest of those shipping lanes.

Xi has stated that the great rejuvenation cannot be complete unless Beijing controls Taiwan. Rudd said that’s “a relatively new proposition in the Chinese vocabulary. Given that (Xi ) stated that the date for achieving national rejuvenation is 2049, so whether we like it or not, in the PRC matrix we’re on something of a 25-year timeline now—and now that I’m in my 60s, 25 years doesn’t seem to me to be an eternity … we’ve now moved from abstract time to real time.”

Rudd said when it comes to Taiwan “our collective objective is to avoid crisis, conflict or war, ” but he also said that Taiwanese officials should be looking to “do more ” to bolster their own defensive capabilities in an effort to stave off a potential attack. He argued that when analyzing Chinese rhetoric on Taiwan, “we just need to be very mindful that this is not just static. As a Chinese position, it’s evolving—and evolving rapidly.”

The U.S. and Australia have tightened military ties amid tensions. In 2021 the U.S., Australia and the United Kingdom signed the trilateral AUKUS defense pact. The agreement allows for closer cooperation between the three countries in developing and fielding nuclear-powered submarines. It also calls for increased cooperation on cyber operations, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic missile technology, electronic warfare, and information sharing.

The U.S. and Australian militaries already had begun increasingly stepping up cooperation—and integration of their forces—in the Pacific. Australian army Maj. Gen. Chris Smith serves as one of the deputy commanders of U.S. Army Pacific at Fort Shafter, and in January Air Vice-Marshal Carl Newman became the first Australian officer to be one of the deputy commanders of U.S. Pacific Air Forces at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Members of the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks are gearing up to ship out to Australia for Talisman Sabre 2023, which officials are touting as the largest military exercise in the Pacific region this year. During the exercise, many of the Hawaii-based American soldiers are expected to be answering to Australian commanders as they learn to better work together.

In addition, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently attended this year’s NATO summit in Lithuania. Though Australia is not a member of NATO, it has cooperated with the alliance and occasionally participated in NATO-led operations.

Since last year when Russian forces invaded western Ukraine—kicking off brutal fighting that has killed thousands of fighters and civilians alike—the Baltic NATO countries bordering Russia have been on high alert. Many NATO countries—as well as others—have been sending weapons and other equipment to Ukrainian forces and have been providing intelligence support.

Rudd noted that more than $500 million worth of Australian military equipment has been fielded in Ukraine and that Australia recently dispatched a surveillance plane to Germany to monitor potential threats to Ukrainian supply lines. He said that “expectations are not simply for Australia to be actively engaged across the Indo-Pacific, but now globally.”

When the Russian military tried to seize Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv in 2022—after months of denying that a buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders was preparation for an invasion—it sent ripples through the global economy and drew swift international condemnation with 143 countries voting in favor of a U.N. resolution condemning Russia.

Rudd said that he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi—who usually support each other—were surprised to see how broadly countries around the world, including in the Pacific, voted to condemn the Russian invasion. Even many countries with traditionally close ties to Russia voted to abstain rather than actually stand with Russia. Only five countries voted in Russia’s favor, and China wasn’t among them.

“In terms of countries in the Indo-Pacific region and as to what is animating them, I think, had the world simply sat back, it would be seen as an active and tacit acceptance of that form of behavior for the future, ” Rudd said. “I don’t think the rest of the Indo-Pacific wanted to send a signal to our friends in Beijing that acting unilaterally militarily was now possible without prices being paid. And that was why I think it was seen as important across the rest of this region as well.”


(c) 2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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