Growing Chinese Influence in South Asia

Kevin Rudd Video Interview with India's ThePrint

Jyoti Malhotra of The Print interviews Kevin Rudd, Asia Society Policy Institute President

Jyoti Malhotra of The Print interviews Kevin Rudd, Asia Society Policy Institute President

Following is the transcript of a video interview that Kevin Rudd gave to Jyoti Malhotra of ThePrint. The video appears below the transcript.


Jyoti Malhotra of ThePrint: I'm with Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, the head of the Asia Society Policy Institute, and the chair of the Global Partnership of Sanitation and Water for All. Mr. Rudd, welcome to ThePrint.


Kevin Rudd:It's good to be on ThePrint


ThePrint:Thank you. So my first question to you is what brings you to Delhi?


Rudd: Well, Prime Minister Modi is having a global conference on India's achievement on sanitation. And I happen to be the global chair of Sanitation and Water For All, which is a UN-affiliated body. We try to bring together all the countries in the world who have major sanitation problems, and who wish to end open defecation. And so I'm here to help celebrate India's achievements. But also encourage the other countries who need to do more. 


ThePrint: Let me then turn to your other expertise, which is on China and Xi Jinping — the general secretary, the president, the head of the Military Commission. What do you make of him?


Rudd: And head of most other things.


ThePrint: And head of... You have called him the “Chairman of Everything.”


Rudd: No I haven't. Others have. 


ThePrint: In your speech in February 2018. There was a speech where you called him the “Chairman of Everything.”


Rudd: Yeah, maybe you're right. I give a lot of speeches on Xi Jinping. 


ThePrint: I am right. 


Rudd: And I bow to your view that you're always right. 


ThePrint: Okay. Not always. Sometimes. Okay, so what do you make of him?


Rudd: Of Xi Jinping? Xi Jinping is a strong leader. He has a clear vision for where he wants to take the country. Domestically, he calls that "The China Dream," which is by 2021 to raise China's living standards to middle-income status. And then by 2049, when China celebrates its centenary — the founding of the People's Republic — for China to have reached advanced-economy status, and to be a major global power. That's where Xi Jinping's trying to take the country. It remains to be seen whether he'll get there. 


ThePrint: But China is celebrating 70 years of its founding. In fact, today, October 1st.


Rudd: Well, October 1st— in 1949 actually, not in 1948 — you had the People's Republic established. And the achievements since then have been formidable. You've had six or seven hundred million Chinese lifted out of poverty. There's still about eighty or ninety million to go. So they still have domestic challenges. But we're also seeing the impact of China's economic presence and its security policy presence elsewhere in the region and the world. 


ThePrint: Right, so if someone were to say to you that the PLA was sort of undertaking an expedition "on its own" (with inverted commas), would you believe them?


Rudd: Well, this is the Doklam question, in disguise, and so I could sense that one coming at a hundred paces. 


ThePrint: That's why you've been Prime Minister of Australia.


Rudd: No, but the bottom line is I find it not believable. My judgment is on significant military operations by the PLA, whether it's in the South China Sea, or on the Indian-Chinese border, or elsewhere — these things occur under direction of the Central Military Commission, of which Xi Jinping is Chair. 


ThePrint: So why would he undertake — why would Xi Jinping undertake an expedition in Doklam, right next to India?


Rudd: Under the particular circumstances which pertained in Doklam at the time — I can't answer your question. I don't have an easy answer to that, and if I tried to give you one, I would be making it up. So I would rather simply say, don't know. But what I do know from the Chinese system is that these things do not happen randomly.


ThePrint: Right, so as a student of Chinese politics and society and that country, how would you analyze it?


Rudd: Well, China in its foreign policy at present, has a particular priority attached to its relationship with its fourteen bordering states. China has fourteen land borders — the largest number in the world except for Russia, which also has fourteen. You have a big one — it's called India. But in relation to each of its neighboring states, China wishes to have a benign relationship — ultimately benign neighbors, and borders which are secure and defensible from their perspective. And so that becomes a central organizing principle, which is a major matter in the framework of Chinese Politburo priorities. So whether it's Vietnam, or whether it's the Mongolians, or whether it's Kazakhstan, or whether it's you folks, or those with whom China shares maritime boundaries in the South China Sea — depending on where those boundaries happen to be — there frankly have been quite a number of frictions. You're just a large part of that equation. 


ThePrint: So, when somebody sort of — you know, the Western command or Eastern command for China, perhaps — moves into the disputed plateau at Doklam, why would they do something like that?


Rudd: That I can't speculate on. I'm not an expert on the Sino-Indian border. But what I do know is that these matters occupy a central priority within the Chinese government. If I was to give you a hierarchy of China's needs, as seen from the worldview of Xi Jinping, it's a bit like this. Number one, stay in power. Number two, ensure that the territorial integrity of the Chinese state, as they define it, is maintained — and the reason for that is it's so much part of the domestic legitimacy of the leader of the Communist Party. And thirdly, keep the economy running, growing living standards and bringing more people out of poverty. And four, with neighboring states — all of them — ensure that you have secure boundaries and hopefully, as I said, benign neighbors. There are several other priorities, as well, but that's where it fits in the order of priority. 


ThePrint: But I'm just wondering: If you do need a benign neighborhood to grow and to prosper, and to prosper inside — but this was not a friendly act, was it?


Rudd: Well, it depends on your definition of "benign." "Benign" can be naturally friendly, or a country which would be inclined to be naturally accommodating to Beijing. So, what particular approach applies to China's strategy on this border, I cannot answer you. 


ThePrint: But as a student of China, would you say that it was a misstep? A gamble gone wrong?


Rudd: Anyone who initiates military activity on a border, in my judgment — on any disputed border — is inviting trouble. So that's my general principle. And frankly, the world and the region has enough troubles right now. 


ThePrint: Okay, let me ask you a different question. The Dalai Lama, who lives in India, is 83 years old now. And there's a lot of talk about after him, who? What do you think the Chinese are thinking?


Rudd: The Chinese have, as you know, enormous political sensitivities about the role of the Dalai. And certainly China has not been happy in the past when I've met with the Dalai Lama. So, and their reason for that is their territorial position on Tibet, which in international law all of us who have diplomatic relations with China have accepted. And then there's the Dalai Lama's particular role, and the safe haven which India has traditionally accorded him and his court at Dharamshala. China's attitude to the Dalai and Tibet remains as hot-button an issue for the Chinese leadership as Xinjiang, as Taiwan. And because in the Chinese hierarchy of interests, maintaining the territorial integrity of the Chinese state is axiomatically linked to the legitimacy of the Chinese leader, so hence why you see Chinese policies in Xinjiang, and hence why China's policies towards Taiwan are becoming tougher, not more liberal over time. 


ThePrint: But in the case of the Dalai Lama, who's aging, naturally, do you think that the Chinese will — what's their thinking about after him? 


Rudd: I can't speculate on what China's posture would be on, let's call it, the Dalai Lama's succession...


ThePrint: Would they have another Dalai Lama, for example?


Rudd:There's a complex series of measures which have been taken by the Chinese over time, concerning religious authority within Tibet. But what particular approach they will take — they certainly haven't briefed me on that. What I do know, though, is this is a matter of central, continuing tension for China, in its attitude and engagement with the outside world. 


ThePrint: Well, with the Panchen Lama, for example, they had their own, and… 


Rudd: So I've met earlier Panchens myself, while I've been in Beijing. And in fact I've met both the Panchen and the Dalai Lama at various times. 


ThePrint: Which Panchen Lama?


Rudd: This was the much earlier one in the 1980s. And he in fact died, I think, in the 1980s. That's true. And I'm conscious of the sensitivities which surround this in three parts of the world: Dharamshala, India more generally, and of course in China itself. I would hope that we can find some bridge through on all this, for the future. It's hard and it's difficult. I know various second track diplomacies have been attempted in the past, and failed. But after a lot of perseverance, I notice also the Roman Catholic Church, through various emissaries, has reached an accommodation with the Chinese state on the future appointment of Bishops to the Catholic Church in China. This is not a complete resolution to the tensions between Rome — that is, the Vatican — and Beijing. But it does indicate China's capacity to think creatively about these questions, as well.


ThePrint: So my last question to you, Mr. Rudd, is about China's very close and symbiotic relationship with Pakistan. And do you think —


Rudd: You're really going for the easy ones today, aren't you?


ThePrint: My last one, like I said. Just the last one. Do you think this will change, transform Pakistan in ways that we don't know — even India doesn't know — as its neighbor?


Rudd: I have to say I'm not an expert on Pakistan. I've been there a number of times. I've been to Islamabad, and I've been to other cities within the country. And Australia — we've always had a good relationship with Pakistan going back to the days of separation and independence, both for India and Pakistan, and those difficult and climactic years of 1947, 48. China has a close relationship with Pakistan going back a long period of time. The Belt and Road Initiative, of course, has a major focus on Pakistan. I think part of the Chinese analysis of Pakistan is: If we Chinese invest a lot in Pakistan's economic infrastructure, that will help grow the economy within Pakistan — China applying its own domestic logic to how you grow economics — and that will help longer term with preventing the growth of militant Islamism within Pakistan, which is of concern to China, as well. Much of China's policies towards Xinjiang, for example, and Afghanistan, are governed by a similar concern about: how do you manage down religious extremism and Islamist militarism, in particular? What will Pakistan's reaction be to all this and what effect will it have? I think there is a big debate, of course, about the sustainability of the debt which arises from these projects. You've seen that in Sri Lanka, as well. 


ThePrint: But would you say that China — that Pakistan is perhaps becoming a client state of the Chinese?


Rudd: I think that if you understand Pakistan and its own sense of national identity, I doubt that Pakistan would ever allow that. They are too proud, as a nation in their own right, as our friends in India know full well. But that doesn't mean that there won't be a close strategic relationship between Islamabad and Beijing. There has been for many decades, and there will be into the future. The question I have in my mind is what impact over time the Belt and Road program — and the particular Pakistan program, which has evolved with it and alongside of it — how transformative that will be of the Pakistan economy? And whether it will engender any reaction. So for me these are open questions about how this will work on the ground in Pakistan. The common interest we all have with Pakistan — a country of 200 million people plus, growing fast, and with an economy that could do enormously with a period of sustained economic growth — will be: Do these Chinese investments help? I know what would help a lot, is if finally we could reach a resolution, between Delhi and Islamabad, and open this border to become one large economic corridor. That would transform, frankly, Pakistan for the long term.


ThePrint: And you wish that would happen?


Rudd: I know the complications are enormous. I know the sensitivities in Kashmir. I understand all the raw tensions which exist in terms of each country's nuclear program. And I know the problems also, of terrorist attacks into India emanating from Pakistan's soil. I'm not blind to any of this. But if somehow some magic can be found to turn that page, imagine the transformative effect on a poor country like Pakistan, if suddenly it was integrated into the wider market of the subcontinent.


ThePrint: Well, you're going to meet Prime Minister Modi. Would you say this to him?


Rudd: It's not my place to provide your prime minister with advice. That would be impolite on the part of a foreign visitor. And I'm simply seeing the prime minister as part of the celebratory events of Swachh Bharat and Clean India, and his not-insignificant achievements on this question of sanitation. So I give him big marks for that. I think India as a country is doing well. But as for its domestic politics —


ThePrint: You're staying away. 


Rudd: — Over to you.