Kevin Rudd knows China: before becoming prime minister or foreign minister he was a diplomat in Beijing. He is a fluent Mandarin speaker and as head of the Asia Society thinktank is deeply engaged in analysing how China’s growing power is reshaping the world.
He also carries a grudge against Malcolm Turnbull for not backing his bid to become secretary general of the United Nations, and this can’t be separated from his withering criticism of Mr Turnbull’s handling of strategy towards China.
He accuses Mr Turnbull of being “incoherent and inconsistent”, blowing from “accommodationist to confrontationist”.
Mr Turnbull, to be fair, has shown he will challenge China. He clashed with Beijing over Chinese interference in Australian politics and has challenged China’s assertion and expansion in the disputed South China Sea.
All of this indicates that regardless of which side of politics is in power, Australia’s relationship with China is never going to get easier. It is already sensitive and complicated with the potential — even likelihood — to become increasingly volatile.
Mr Rudd’s personal animosity to Mr Turnbull and his criticisms of Australia’s strategy are less interesting than what Mr Rudd has to say about the rise of a country that he says is challenging the global order.
“China in my study of the tradition over the course of my life has a deep view of the rest of the world, which is it is always contemptuous of weakness and a respecter of strength,” Mr Rudd says.
Speaking to Matter of Fact, Mr Rudd outlined a potential new world order, led by Beijing, that rejects democracy and jettisons any international commitment to human rights.
He said the US-China relationship was “in a deeply fragile state” and he expected the two to clash over trade in 2018.
China, the US and the Thucydides trap
There are trip wires throughout the Asia region that could, if mishandled, escalate into conflict.
Harvard University China scholar Graham Allison worries that China and America are destined for war.
He points to what is known as the Thucydides trap, when a rising power challenges an established power. In 12 out of 16 cases since the 1500s, Mr Allison says, this geopolitical rivalry has ended in war.
Mr Rudd says we are “right now at a profound and deep inflection point between the existing post-war global order to something where we don’t quite know what the future rules will be”.
Mr Rudd warns of another option — “the Kindleberger trap”. Here, global leadership dissolves into a vacuum where powers pursue their own ends with no binding structure.
It is worth considering.
Economic historian Charles Kindleberger gave rise to the theory with his analysis of the slide into depression in the late 1920s.
He argued that Great Britain could no longer exercise global leadership and the United States did not step up.
Expert in global power Joseph Nye has applied Kindleberger’s trap to the state of the world today. He says the United States may not be able to maintain its dominance, but China remains too weak to fill the void.
Writing in the magazine The Diplomat last year, Chinese international relations analyst Chen Zheng argued that the US still “enjoys power superiority”, while China is eager to exert more influence but “still lacks sufficient capability”.
Zheng says China suffers from domestic weaknesses and while it may shoulder more responsibility it “doesn’t necessarily mean global leadership”.
Enter the Rudd synthesis
Kevin Rudd has an alternative: the two “traps” can exist simultaneously. We could call this “the Rudd synthesis”.
It may in fact be more accurate: a world on the brink of global conflict not with two rival powers but splintered, with no dominant nation to hold things together: “America First”; Brexit; Putinism.
Mr Rudd argues this is our world today — some sort of geopolitical free-for-all with the liberal order decaying from within.
“If we were getting a mark out of 10 at the moment we would get only 4.5,” Mr Rudd says.
He points to increasing illiberalism breaking out in Eastern Europe and the United States with the “forces of the far right rearing their ugly heads”.
“Societies based on verifiable facts and the free media [are] becoming passe,” Mr Rudd says.
Mr Rudd is also concerned about Brexit and retreat from open free trade and a return of protectionism.
China will prey on weakness
Watching all of this is China, taking glee at the weakness of the West, even while it is not yet ready or capable of filling the breach.
“This is real stuff unfolding each day,” Mr Rudd says, “and if there’s something to be taken seriously by reading the history of the First World War it’s that things can move really quickly — from people in 1913 saying the possibility of war among the great powers does not exist, to the guns of August in 1914.”
That is the nightmare scenario: but there’s an alternative.
The “Rudd synthesis” may in fact work in China’s favour.
If it avoids war or the Thucydides trap, the Kindleberger trap — a power vacuum with a fractured world order — means China emerges as the dominant power without the burden of global leadership that America has shouldered at great cost for the past half century.
But what may be good for China may not be good for the world.
Mr Rudd’s warning to Australia and the rest of the world is to look at ourselves: Bolster Western values or China — one way or the other — will prey on weakness.