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27 April 2010 10:21

Kevin Rudd has offered a series of dark scenarios for China's international future.

The Prime Minister's China speech last Friday was a rare foreign policy interlude in what will be a remorselessly domestic year. The big sign over The Kevin's mental mantelpiece reads: 'It's the election, stupid!' But raising his eyes from the permanent campaign for a moment, Rudd offered:

  1. China as threat.
  2. China as direct competitor with the US for control of the international system.
  3. China as self-absorbed mercantilist bully.

No wonder Rudd needs to create the Australian Centre on China in the World. This is a troublesome set of options to choose from. Here is how Rudd described those three scenarios:

There is a hardline view that regards China's rise as a threat to the existing global order no matter what. There is a contrary view, espoused by some particularly in the developing world and in some parts of academia, that a new "Beijing consensus" should replace the "Washington consensus" with China the model for developing countries to follow. There is the associated view of China as the economic saviour of the world, emerging from the global financial crisis. Or alternatively, there is the view that China increasingly behaves as a mercantilist power, insensitive to its emerging global economic responsibilities. The truth is there are as many conflicting views in the West about China and its future as there are within China itself.

The spectre of a clash of values and interests between the US and China has been a staple of Rudd's international conversation for a long time. The debate inside the Prime Ministerial cranium got a run in the Defence White Paper and the China speech hit some of the same notes:

Let us remember that we are now seeing the rise of a new great power alongside the continuing single existing superpower the United States. In this context, genuine engagement becomes critically necessary. History is not overburdened with examples of how such transitions in geopolitical and geo-economic realities have been accommodated peacefully. We need a new way forward.

And that way forward leads in what direction? The paths identified by the Prime Minister tend to the multilateral: the G20, more work on stronger community architecture for the Asia Pacific and a reprise of the Robert Zoellick line about China as a stakeholder in the global system. The stakeholder call is linked to a list of examples where Beijing is driving a stake into the system:

China associates with regimes around the world that others seek to isolate because of their assault on the integrity of international system - from the Sudan to Burma. China can - and should - do more to support wider international efforts against destabilising regimes and on global security challenges such as Afghanistan and Iran…China is already a major stakeholder in the current global order. What the world would welcome is China engaging across the board as major global stakeholder in the maintenance and enhancement of that stable, rules-based order in the future.

Rudd's China speech is a reminder of the intellectual reserves he can bring to foreign policy. This is Rudd doing one of the things he can do extraordinarily well. The tribute he offered to Australian Sinophiles was drawn from Rudd's experience and bookshelf, not some list run up by a speech writer.

When talking about present issues and future prospects with China, though, the itchiness of recent wounds was evident. Rudd named the scars from last year. First, there was controversy surrounding the failed Chinalco bid for Rio Tinto in June. Then, in July, the Australian businessman Stern Hu was arrested in Shanghai. In August, Rebiya Kadeer visited the Melbourne Film Festival.

The Prime Minister touched on the terms of the ceasefire deal announced in the Australia-China joint statement back in October. Australia acknowledges China's core interests but they need to give us a bit of respect too: 

Otherwise our engagement runs the risk of being formalistic and lacking the elements of a mature and genuine relationship that is necessary as we negotiate the shoals of the future. It runs the risk of concealing beneath it a range of tensions (both real and imagined) which cannot be resolved if they are not the subject of substantive discussion.

Rudd even gave a brief re-run of the speech he delivered in Beijing in 2008. Again, he offers the idea of Australia as a 'zhengyou', a true friend who 'offers unflinching advice and counsels restraint'. It was an interesting bit of history to raise, given that some have seen that Beijing speech as the moment that the Chinese leadership decided Lu Kewen needed to be kicked back into place.

Photo by Flickr user Steve DeMent, used under a Creative Commons license.

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