You are here

Talk by The Hon. Kevin Rudd, President Asia Society Policy Institute and former PM Australia

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • August 24, 2022
    Eminent Persons' Lecture Series
    Only by Invitation
    1100 hrs

    On 24 August 2022, the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) hosted the Honourable Kevin Rudd, President, Asia Society Policy Institute and former Prime Minister of Australia for a Lecture on the topic “China’s Internal Drivers and External Orientation”. Director General, MP-IDSA, Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy delivered the welcome remarks and enriched the discussion with his insightful comments on the subject by moderating a lively Q&A session. The discussion was followed by the launch of the Hon. Mr. Rudd’s new book The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping's China.

    Executive Summary

     In the last few decades, the international community has witnessed China’s dramatic rise. However, increase in Chinese economic and military capabilities has been disruptive due to China’s inability to accommodate the interests and aspirations of other powers. Further, China under Xi Jinping’s leadership has discarded its previous policy of “hide your strength and bide your time” and has grown increasingly assertive and provocative in its policy approach. Expecting that the international community will have to deal with Xi Jinping’s China for the foreseeable future, the Hon. Kevin Rudd delivered a comprehensive lecture on President Xi’s ideological worldview, present state of Chinese economy and the possible outcome of the 20th Party Congress.

    Detailed Report

    The session began with welcome remarks by Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy. He welcomed the attendees and the key speaker, the Hon. Kevin Rudd by sharing anecdotes’ on their long association, as well as informing the audience of Mr. Rudd’s vast knowledge and expertise as a seasoned China watcher. Setting the tone of the discussion he opined that China’s rise has been phenomenal but disruptive on account of its own inability to accommodate the sensitivities of others. Highlighting the West’s response, he observed that the liberal democratic order is reacting strongly to Chinese hubris and the growing contestation between the United States (US) and China has raised the spectre of a looming conflict. He cautioned that a perceived decline in US power could lead to a miscalculation in Beijing. Towards the end of his remarks Ambassador Chinoy briefly elaborated on the pressing questions which persist regarding the Chinese dream of reunification with Taiwan and the possibility of China using force. He emphasised that a rules based international order is a prerequisite for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. With these comments he invited the Hon. Kevin Rudd to deliver his address.

    Hon. Mr. Rudd at the outset of his lecture identified three broad themes that constituted his presentation; first, the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ideological worldview, second, current standing and future trajectory of the Chinese economy and lastly, the possible policy orientation that is likely to emerge from the 20th Party Congress in terms of China’s future leadership structure. Elaborating on the first aspect of his presentation he observed that Xi’s worldview can be defined in ten concentric circles indicating his most core interests to those which are not central but significant.

    First, is to stay in power. Hon. Mr. Rudd underscored this intent as central to Xi’s actions. He contended that the decision-making in Beijing is guided by the motive to keep the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in power with Xi as the leader of the party.

    Second, is growing the economy. He observed that growing the economy is significant in two respects, first is because of the social contract between the CCP and the Chinese people, whereby the population will continue to surrender their political rights to the party in exchange for economic growth, rising living standards and increasing employment opportunities. The second reason is that economic growth is fundamental to China’s aggregate national ambition of national wealth and power. In Beijing’s perception a strong economy will increase China’s capacity to invest in its military capabilities and other leverages of international power.

    Third, is to maintain and sustain national unity at all costs. According to the Hon. Mr. Rudd this underpins China’s strategy towards Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Also, these are not just matters of fundamental national security interests to CCP, but in view of the series of invasions that China suffered in the past, national unity is perceived to be important to mitigate future threats. He added that the case of Taiwan is ideologically important as the reunification would symbolise completion of Chinese revolution.

    Fourth, is ensuring environmental sustainability. The issue has gained considerable attention in recent times owing to a series of factors like intense public reaction to air pollution in China’s major cities. This in turn has also resulted in a different appraisal of the importance of reining in China’s carbon emissions. Further, scientific conclusions and physical observations of now extreme weather events across China have also concerned policymakers. The Hon. Mr. Rudd observed that focus on environmental sustainability could make China’s economic objective become partly subjective to China’s environmental objective and this issue is now a part of the internal debate.

    Fifth, is the strategy under Xi Jinping towards China’s neighbouring states. As China shares land borders with 14 states, Beijing expends considerable attention towards managing ties with them and in the Chinese world view its neighbours should be economically dependent on China, which in turn ensures foreign policy compliance towards China. In the words of the Hon. Mr. Rudd “this is quite a deep axiom in terms on Chinese strategic policy and has its own category of consideration within Chinese foreign policy conceptual universe”.

    Sixth, is modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and turning it into a fully modernised, integrated and information systems driven military which is capable of both fighting and winning wars. The Hon. Mr. Rudd claimed this policy decision to be a considerable revolution within the Chinese military establishment.

    Seventh, is pushing the US out of East Asia, West-Pacific and beyond the first island chain as Beijing considers the US’ forward presence to be a direct threat to China’s ability to take Taiwan. To this end, a central element of Chinese military strategy in East Asia and West Pacific is to ultimately fracture the US traditional alliance structure.

    Eighth is that China is striving to extend a parallel sphere of influence in its continental periphery to the West through Eurasia. The major objective of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and other related initiatives is to extend Chinese influence throughout Eurasia including Western Europe and transform the region into a zone of economic opportunity for China, while creating economic dependencies on China. Two major bases of this strategy are first to induce high levels of foreign policy compliance in the long run and fundamentally re-engineer US-Russia / China-Russia relations.

    Ninth is to get the rest of the developing world (Africa, Latin America, Asia) especially with whom China shares economic partnerships to support Chinese foreign policy interests in multilateral institutions.

    And tenth, is to re-engineer the rules based international order through various means. In this context the Hon. Mr. Rudd offered two instances, first within international institutions China is causing its financial and personal footprint to become much more pronounced as an actor than it was in the past. Second, China is seeking to change the international system in a normative sense whereby in institutions of multilateral governance, Beijing is trying to replace notions of universal human rights of the individual with sovereign rights of the state.

    On the second aspect of his presentation that is current standing of the Chinese economy, the Hon. Mr. Rudd observed that the future performance of the domestic economy is the Achilles’ heel of Xi Jinping’s strategic vision and his ideological worldview.  Because Xi, in a bid to restructure state-market relations, reined in the absolute operational freedom enjoyed by the Chinese private sector, which in turn has impacted China’s economic growth. Further, the adverse impact of the ideologically driven economic policies has been compounded by COVID induced economic slowdown and shrinking workforce. Therefore, assumptions about large-scale expansion of the Chinese economy in the future appear weak.

    Talking about the possible outcomes of the 20th Party Congress, the Hon. Mr. Rudd informed that the economic policies emerging from the event will be important to note. He contended that Xi Jinping will be re-appointed as there is no alternative in sight. However, the real question is whether following his reappointment Xi will have the same political mandate to effectively re-engineer China’s economic strategy for the next ten to fifteen years.

    The Hon. Mr. Rudd concluded his remarks by stating that the international community will be dealing with China for a long time and therefore it is necessary to understand Xi’s worldview and its implications domestically and worldwide.

    Following The Hon. Mr. Rudd’s address, Ambassador Chinoy thanked him for the presentation and made a few observations. He opined that President Xi Jinping appears to be an amalgamation of a number of strands from Chinese history for when it comes to the expansion of China’s Blue Water Navy and maritime power, he is taking a page out of the book of the Ming Dynasty. Similarly, as the expansionism and belligerence on borders is a Qing dynasty mindset, the desire to make China, a very modern country resemble the thinking that Republican China had under Sun Yat Sen. Further, Xi also adopted Mao’s principles in reining in the private sectors and co-existing with the bourgeoise for a particular purpose packed within the four corners of the party tenets. Therefore, in his own way Xi Jinping has learnt a lot from history.

    The Hon. Mr. Rudd concurred with Ambassador Chinoy’s observations and affirmed that Xi Jinping like his predecessors is an amalgam of Chinese classical and modern history because China has a highly literate culture which is deeply informed by historical tradition but interpreted through the lenses of a modern Marxist Leninist party. Further, the sweeping changes that Xi has instituted reflect different elements of the Chinese systems before him.

    Q& A Session

    During the discussion a number of questions were raised. Dr. Sanjaya Baru, Distinguished Fellow at the United Services Institute (USI) queried whether present concerns in the West about China’s rise have been triggered by Xi Jinping’s assertive policies and if not, why did the international community get China wrong in the past? Prof. K. P. Vijayalakshmi, Member of the MP-IDSA Executive Council, asked about Xi Jinping’s vulnerabilities and whether the US House of Representatives (HoR) Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit would encourage other countries to send delegations. Lastly, Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Rakesh Sharma, Member of the MP-IDSA Executive Council, asked whether the social contract between the CCP and Chinese citizens is unchangeable. Further, one of the participants commented on the lack of professionalism in the PLA and raised doubt about China’s capability to take over Taiwan.

    The Hon. Mr. Rudd responded to the questions and the comments. He reflected that Australia had started noting changes in China’s international behaviour during Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s second term, however, China’s international behaviour has undergone drastic change under President Xi. Therefore, at present it is important to reflect on the imperfections of the previous analyses and embrace the new reality. On the question of President Xi Jinping’s vulnerabilities and the international community’s standing on Taiwan, he observed that as a dialectician Xi has an acute sense of action and reaction. He added that the US and other countries who have diplomatically recognised China should fully honour the symbolism of the one-China policy. Pondering on the issue of social contract, the Hon. Mr. Rudd contended that the tacit understanding has began to fracture because of the economic slowdown and also because of the constraints on people’s private lives. Lastly, agreeing with one of the participant’s comments on the PLA’s lack of professionalism, he added that the PLA’s senior military officials have a certain degree of caution and conservatism about fighting wars.

    The discussion was followed by launch of the Hon. Mr. Rudd’s new book The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping's China.

    The report was prepared by Ms. Mayuri Banerjee, Research Analyst, East Asia Centre, MP-IDSA.