Former prime minister Kevin Rudd has blamed Malcolm Turnbull’s “domestically and politically self-indulgent nuttiness” for the problems in the relationship between China and Australia, in a wide-ranging address in which he predicted the US and China had a “50-50” chance of reaching an agreement to end the trade war and compared China’s state-run media to News Corp.
Rudd, who is now the director of the Asia Society Policy Institute based in New York, and is studying for a PhD on Chinese president Xi Jinping at Oxford University, spoke at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on Thursday night in an unguarded manner, repeatedly expressing his disdain for Donald Trump whom he called “the Trumpster” or “the Donald” and comparing China’s state-run media to News Corp.
But Rudd saved his most scathing comments of the evening for Turnbull, referencing an incident in December 2017 during the controversy about foreign interference and Labor MP Sam Dastyari’s connections with China.
When asked if he felt “bullied or intimidated” by China, Turnbull invoked a famous Chinese slogan to declare Australia would “stand up” against meddling in its national affairs. Switching between Mandarin and English, Turnbull said: “Modern China was founded in 1949 with these words: ‘The Chinese people have stood up’. It was an assertion of sovereignty, it was an assertion of pride. And we stand up and so we say, the Australian people stand up.”
On Thursday night, Rudd said politicians needed to “be very judicious about when you open your big mouth”.
“By which I mean, Turnbull’s egregious statement that the Australian people have stood up. That stuff that he did at the end of 2017, that was just nuts, it was domestically and politically self-indulgent nuttiness.”
Rudd said he was in Beijing at the time of the comments, and the discussion of foreign interference was passing by without much attention from Chinese leaders.
“And then suddenly, in thunders Malcolm, and he picks the phrase that Mao Zedong used… Picks that phrase, or blabs it out in his own appalling rendition of Chinese, and then suddenly it was in every Chinese headline.
“You want to pick the day when the relationship went, in my judgment unnecessarily, down the gurgle [sic], it was that day, so just be judicious about when you embark upon public language.”
Rudd also made a jibe at News Corp, of which he has been a vocal critic since leaving office, calling Rupert Murdoch “the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy”.
Rudd said that after the Chinese government decided on their “red lines” in the dispute with the US over tariffs, the government’s position then “mysteriously” appeared on the front page of all the Chinese newspapers. “It’s like News Limited,” he said.
Speaking about the ongoing trade war between China and the US, which has seen the US impose tariffs of 25% on some Chinese goods sold in the US, Rudd said there was an “overwhelming” economic case for the two countries to reach a deal, but there was a question of whether they could overcome the political barriers to do so.
“I think we’re in a 50-50 territory about the likelihood of producing an agreement,” he said.
Rudd pointed to the relative weakness of China’s domestic economy and the fact that Trump will not want to spook Wall Street in the lead-up to next year’s election as motivation for the two leaders to reach an agreement.
“The Trumpster knows two things, one is, I read opinion polls, and two is, I read the Dow. That’s all the Trumpster’s interested in… So he knows how skittish Dow sentiment is on the question of can there be a deal done on trade, so he at that level wants it done.”
But Rudd said one of the most challenging things for allies of the US including Australia was dealing with a “bifurcated American administration” in which the president had one view, but his departments and the bureaucracy of the administration might have another.
“[T]here is Trump-land up here which is deeply transactional and deeply non-strategic, in the sense of where does America want to be in five, 10, 15, 20 years’ time? What is China’s role in the future of that world? … That’s not the way the Donald thing, never has been and never will be. So the danger that European and Asian allies encounter with America’s chief executive and commander-in-chief is, what does he say tomorrow?”
Rudd, who served as a diplomat in Beijing before entering politics and speaks Mandarin, said in order to engage well with its regional neighbours, Australia needed to show respect, which he said was “something which doesn’t necessarily come easily to the Australian way of thinking” and said a key way of doing this was to learn the languages of the region.
“I’ve been preaching this message for 30 years now: a much much bigger slab of us need to be comfortably bilingual and trilingual in our own region, just as a matter of what I call disciplinary etiquette,” he said.
Rudd added that it wasn’t easy for him to learn Mandarin, which he describes as “a crazy language to learn if you’re an Anglo and grew up in rural Queensland”, but said: “I think this is a mark of respect … Every now and then a Chinese leader will say to you, it means a lot to us that you bothered.”