Two prime ministers on Australia’s China challenge
5 Sep 2022|

‘The past decade has seen a huge turnaround in Australia’s attitudes towards China. Handling this relationship is unquestionably our biggest foreign policy challenge at present. China is our largest export destination. Approximately 1.4 million Australians are of Chinese descent. Chinese is the most widely spoken foreign language in our country.’

— John Howard, A sense of balance, 2022

‘For policy makers in Beijing and Washington, as well as in other capitals, the 2020s will be the decade of living dangerously. Beneath the surface, the stakes have never been higher or the contest sharper, whatever diplomats and politicians may say publicly. Should these two giants find a way to coexist without betraying their core interests—through what I call managed strategic competition—the world will be better off. Should they fail, down the other path lies the possibility of a war that could rewrite the futures of both countries and the world in a way we can barely imagine.’

— Kevin Rudd, The avoidable war, 2022

For John Howard, Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister (1996 to 2007), it’s the perplexing ‘China dilemma’.

For Kevin Rudd, Howard’s successor in 2007, it’s the ‘avoidable war’—what would be a ‘catastrophic conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China’.

The new books by the two prime ministers have different purposes, but on China they rhyme.

Howard seeks balance, while Rudd thinks only a grand bargain for ‘managed strategic competition’ can deliver equilibrium.

Howard’s chapter on China sits naturally as one theme of his discussion of how Australia’s ‘sense of balance has defined us as a nation and will safeguard our future’.

Using the same frame that served him well as PM, Howard describes his ‘China dilemma’ chapter as ‘reflections on the balance between supporting our major ally and dealing with our major trading partner’.

Howard is confident that balance can be achieved. Rudd fears the ‘Chinese party-state is increasingly on a self-selected collision course with America’. Xi is set to be paramount leader through the 2020s and well into the 2030s, Rudd writes, as China and the US prepare for war.

Howard’s book is written about, and for, Australia. Rudd’s book is written for the US and China, arguing that geopolitical disaster is fast approaching.

Much of the American strategic community, Rudd writes, has ‘a deep view that some form of armed conflict with Beijing is inevitable … In Washington, therefore, the question is no longer whether such confrontation can be avoided, but when it will occur and under what circumstances. And to a large extent, this mirrors the position in Beijing.’

Rudd hits high with his blurb writer. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger commends Rudd’s focus ‘on the signal challenge posed by China’s evolution to America and to world order. Can the US and China avoid sleepwalking into a conflict?’

The two prime ministers are as one on the significance of the Quad and the AUKUS agreement, which reaches its first birthday this month.

Howard describes AUKUS as ‘a counterbalance to the growth of Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific’ and ‘the most significant defence arrangement since ANZUS’, while the Quad is ‘a major hedge against Chinese expansionism’.

Rudd says the Quad has ‘crystallised geopolitical resistance’ to China into a focused institutional response. Attracting South Korea to join the Quad, Rudd writes, and Indonesia (‘a more remote prospect’) would add to the Quad’s strategic heft, presenting ‘a serious challenge to China’s ambitions’. The emergence of the Quad and China’s response are ‘likely to accelerate the regional arms race that is already under way’.

Rudd argues that Beijing’s fear of the Quad as an ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’ is a key reason for China’s hammering of Australia over the past two years. China wants to break the Quad apart, he writes, and selected a target, aiming ‘to kill one (Australia) to warn two (Japan and India)’. The intent was to demonstrate to others the risk of being cut off from China’s huge domestic market, Rudd writes:

Beijing clearly estimated that Australia was the least likely of the Quad countries to actually break with the United States; the most vulnerable to economic coercion (as the smallest of the Quad states); and the least threatening to Chinese interests (being more distant from China’s borders than Japan, India, or the long arm of American power).

Howard predicts the icy age between Australia and China will continue, because Beijing feels ‘safe in attacking Australia’ in ways it wouldn’t dare with the US:

There is no sign that China’s diplomatic sniping towards Australia will ease soon. In fact, it may be intensified because of AUKUS. Given Australia’s now even closer links with the United States, and the quite sophisticated understanding the Chinese have of that relationship, I predict that Australia will remain something of a proxy punching bag in Chinese eyes.

Howard is more sanguine about the danger of a war over Taiwan. In a ‘knock-down, drag-out fight’, Taiwan would be tough to subjugate, Howard writes, and a ‘defeated and resentful Taiwan would prove a costly and resource-consuming Chinese Province’. He predicts that China will pile on pressure but will not dare invade:

I regard it as highly unlikely that China will launch a conventional attack on Taiwan, largely because it fears a retaliatory response from the US that could well prove embarrassing. Military or other action short of a frontal strike is far more likely, particularly if it causes the US to agonise over how to respond.

Speaking at ASPI’s conference in April on China’s emerging military and strategic capabilities, Rudd said conflict over Taiwan would quickly descend into a catastrophic general war: ‘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.’

Rudd views Australia’s struggles with China in the context of the ‘unfolding crisis’ between the US and China and the danger of ‘global carnage on an industrial scale’.

Howard brings it back to the dollars and shared interests:

Amid all the diplomatic analysis, we Australians should not forget that the Chinese understand how valuable the economic links are between our two countries. For different reasons, we both need this trading relationship. Self-respecting pragmatism should always guide our approach to China. Fundamental beliefs should never be compromised, but schoolboy point-scoring should be shunned.