China–Solomons deal ‘politically illiterate’ if Beijing wants better ties with Australia: Rudd
29 Apr 2022|

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd says China’s security deal with Solomon Islands was a ‘politically illiterate’ move if Beijing is sincere about improving relations with Australia.

Speaking at an ASPI event in Canberra on Thursday, he said that while it was not clear that Australian politics had come into China’s calculations, the timing in the middle of an election campaign meant the deal with the Solomons was bound to cause political fireworks.

‘If the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party were seriously in the business of sending out a signal that post the next Australian election, whoever wins, the Liberal Party or my party, the Labor Party, that we wanted to have an agenda shift, we wanted to have a circuit-breaker, I could not have prescribed a worse thing to do than say, “I know what we’re going to do, we’re going to announce or have agreed with our new best buddies in Honiara, this security pact with the government of Solomon Islands.”

It is just politically illiterate for the Chinese party apparatus to have approved that as an approach.’

The deal will make it much harder for whichever party succeeds at the polls to thaw out relations with China, the former Labor PM said.

He said there was no doubt the Solomons agreement was a ‘deeply adverse development’ for Australia.

‘The cardinal principle of Australian security policy, including under Labor governments, since 1945 has been to secure the island states of the South Pacific from external strategic penetration. Governments of both persuasions have done that, but now we have a problem.’

The deal and its likely consequence of torpedoing the chances of improved China–Australia relations could be an indication of the bifurcation between China’s powerful Central Military Commission and its foreign policy establishment.

Rudd said it’s possible the commission wanted to seal the deal with the Solomons in part to demonstrate to Australia that it would face consequences for joining the AUKUS pact and pushing to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

The strategic geography of Solomon Islands is not lost on Chinese military planners, who also could be interested in submarine cables that connect Australia to the US, links that would be vital in any conflict between the US and China.

‘The Central Military Commission is always wargaming what happens if the balloon goes up,’ Rudd said.

The possibility of such a conflict, likely over Taiwan, is the main theme of his latest book, The avoidable war.

Rudd said the 2020s are likely to be the most dangerous decade as China sees the balance of power with the US tipping further in its favour, something Xi Jinping has been seeking to exploit more and more aggressively since he came to power in 2012.

Taiwan is on track in Xi’s mind for ‘reunification’ by the 2049 centenary of the forming of the People’s Republic of China and probably by 2035, Rudd said.

He estimates that the late 2020s loom as the time this is most likely to happen.

While the military balance of power is increasingly in Beijing’s favour for an attempted invasion, as difficult as that would be, China is still economically and financially exposed.

‘Right now, the Chinese system is massively vulnerable to the United States.’

China is now trying to reduce its reliance in this area, which would give it the freedom of action to invade Taiwan without some of the economic consequences Russia has faced for its attack on Ukraine.

This window does give an opportunity for Taiwan as well as the US and its allies to re-establish deterrence.

Rudd noted that Taiwan is also now turning around its own defence capabilities after years of ‘woeful’ levels of preparedness.

Avoiding a conflict over Taiwan is vital as it would quickly descend ‘into a general war and of catastrophic dimensions,’ he said.

‘In my judgement there is no such thing as a limited war over Taiwan. You cannot construct a warfighting scenario for Taiwan which is just a couple of grey ships taking pot-shots at each other.’

To prevent that from happening, Rudd advocates a framework of ‘managed strategic competition’ through which the US and China agree on ways to acknowledge each other’s red lines, recognise areas where there will likely be ongoing and constant competition, and find issues, such as climate change, on which there can be some level of cooperation.

Without such a framework, the world risks sleepwalking into a war that no one wants, much like it did in 1914 in the months before the outbreak of World War I.

The world must also heed the lessons of appeasement in the several years before World War II that caused ‘the dictators of the time to reach the conclusion that you could continue to salami-slice Europe and ultimately the world’, he added.

‘And partly because of the aftershock of the First World War, then we collectively engaged in appeasement. Governments in the UK, to some extent the United States and certainly in this country as well. And the rest, as they say, is history.’

As China heads towards the 20th CCP congress, at which it is expected Xi will cement his place with a third term as leader, Rudd said there’s a possibility there will be some fallout over Xi’s close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially if Putin is overthrown in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

‘If Putin were to fall between now and 20th party congress, it would have a huge impact. Because not only did your man fail in Ukraine; your man, your best buddy, who you say publicly is your best friend in the world, is now purged out of office and gone.’

Rudd added that, aside from Putin falling, he didn’t think there was any terminal danger for Xi’s reappointment as general secretary.

‘The thing for us to watch as an analytical community is what happens with the rest of the Chinese leadership. In other words, is there an institutional reaction against this concentration of power in a single man’s hands?’

That could lead to a ‘more complex’ set of political arrangements in Beijing and could help set the course for whether war between the US and China is indeed avoidable.