Kevin Rudd on U.S.-China Relations: This is a New and Dangerous Phase

Kevin Rudd Op-Ed in AFR


Commander, U.S. Third Fleet/ U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)

The following is an excerpt of an op-ed by ASPI President Kevin Rudd originally published in The Australian Financial Review

Last year represented a fundamental strategic turning point in the 40-year history of US-China relations. This is not just an American view; it is also the Chinese view. Just as it is my own analytical view based on 40 years of observation of this relationship, going back to the time when I was an undergraduate student at the Australian National University.

The nature of this change is that the United States, after 40 years of strategic engagement with China following China's decision under Deng Xiaoping to pursue a domestic policy shift toward economic reform and opening, has concluded that China is no longer a trustworthy strategic partner.

The analytical underpinnings of the period of engagement were that China, having embarked upon a series of economic, social, and some political reforms, was incrementally integrating itself into the American-led international rules-based order. This, in turn, was based on China's decision in 1978 to abandon its policy of support for communist revolutionary movements around the world. This change followed the abandonment of a decade-plus of political radicalism pursued by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. And it followed, perhaps most significantly, China's decision to embrace one series after another of market-based economic reforms, beginning with the introduction of price-based incentives in agriculture, then light manufacturing.

On top of this, the normalization of political relations between the United States and China, from Richard Nixon's visit in 1972 to formal diplomatic recognition under Jimmy Carter in 1979, led to a sustained period of fundamental strategic realignment between China and the United States against a common strategic adversary in the form of the Soviet Union.

Despite the ebbs and flows of this relationship over the next 40 years, the underlying American assumption was that China had embarked upon a long-term, irreversible program of economic, political, and foreign policy reform that posed no long-term threat to US national values, interests, and the international order that America had constructed in the postwar period. Indeed, a number of Americans concluded that if China's reform program continued, and if China eventually surpassed the United States first as an economic power and eventually as a military power, this would not itself constitute any fundamental threat to US interests or any real disruption to the stability of the global order.

According to this logic, as China became progressively more capitalist, more "democratic," and more reliant on the integrity of the rules-based system for its own interests as a global power, China would, over time, accept the inherent logic of the system it was inheriting. Under these circumstances, the ultimate logic of the Thucydides Trap, whereby a rising power is ultimately challenged by an established power, would be avoided because a peaceful exchanging of the batons could eventually be accommodated.

Read the full article in the Australian Financial Review.