Kevin Rudd on ‘an Infinitely More Assertive China’ Under Xi Jinping

“What we’ve seen is an infinitely more assertive China,” says Kevin Rudd, president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former prime minister of Australia, in assessing the country’s evolution under Xi Jinping. As a result, Mr. Rudd is not surprised by how rapidly the consensus view of China has shifted, with strategic competition having replaced win-win cooperation as the buzzword in the capitals of Western and Asian democracies.

“The principle dynamic here has been China’s changing course itself,” he says, as well as China’s emergence as a global power. “We have a new guy in charge who has decided to be more assertive about China’s interests and values in the world beyond China’s borders. And secondly, a more powerful China capable of giving that effect.”

A highly regarded observer and analyst of China’s domestic politics and foreign policy, Mr. Rudd spoke with WPR editor-in-chief Judah Grunstein about the challenge China poses to the West, the impact and implications of Xi Jinping’s rule, and the future prospects of both China’s rise and America’s global leadership role.

Despite China’s growing power, Mr. Rudd cautions against what he calls the “excessive pessimism” currently on display in Washington. “America remains a powerful country in economic terms, in technological terms and in military terms, and against all three measures still today more powerful than China.”

With regard to how the U.S.-China rivalry plays out, he says, a lot will depend “on what the United States chooses to do in terms of its own national leadership, and therefore foreign policy direction,” in November. Above all, “Americans shouldn’t talk themselves out of global leadership in the future.”

The following is the full transcript of the interview.

World Politics Review: Mr. Rudd, thank you so much for joining us on Trend Lines.

Kevin Rudd: Happy to be on the program.

WPR: I want to start with a look at this bipartisan consensus that’s emerged in the United States, this reappraisal of China in the U.S., but also in Europe and increasingly in Australia. This idea that the problems of China’s trade policies and the level playing fields within the domestic market, aren’t going away. If anything, they’re getting worse. Same thing with regard to human rights and political liberalization under Xi Jinping. And that the West really needs to start preparing for a period of strategic rivalry with China, including increased friction and maybe some bumping of elbows. Are you surprised by how rapidly this new consensus has emerged and how widespread it is?

Mr. Rudd: I’m not surprised by the emergence of a form of consensus across the democracies, whether they happen to be Western or Asian democracies, or democracies elsewhere in the world. And there’s a reason for that, and that is that the principle dynamic here has been China’s changing course itself.

And secondly, quite apart from a change in management under Xi Jinping and the change in direction we’ve seen under him, China is now increasingly powerful. It doesn’t matter what matrix of power we’re looking at—economic power, trade, investment; whether it’s capital markets, whether it’s technology or whether it’s the classic determinants of international power and various forms of military leverage.

You put all those things together, we have a new guy in charge who has decided to be more assertive about China’s interests and values in the world beyond China’s borders. And secondly, a more powerful China capable of giving that effect.

So as a result of that, many countries for the first time have had this experience rub up against them. In the past, it’s only been China’s near neighbors who have had this experience. Now it’s a much broader and shared experience around the region and around the world.

So there are the structural factors at work in terms of shaping an emerging consensus on the part of the democracies, and those who believe in an open, free trading system in the world, and those who are committed to the retention of the liberal international order—that these countries are beginning to find a common cause in dealing with their collective challenges with the Middle Kingdom.

WPR: Now you mentioned the new guy in charge, obviously that’s Xi Jinping who’s been central to all of the recent shifts in China, whether it’s domestic policy or foreign policy. At the same time there’s some suggestion that as transformational as Xi is, that there’s quite a bit of continuity in terms of some of the more assertive policies of his predecessor Hu Jintao. Is it a mistake to focus so much on Xi? Does he reflect a break in China’s approach to the world, or is it continuity or more of a transition that responds to the context of perhaps waning American power as perceived by China? So is it a mistake to focus so much on Xi, as opposed to trying to understand the Chinese leadership writ large, their perception of their own national interest?

Mr. Rudd: I think it’s a danger to see policy continuity and policy change in China as some binary alternative, because with Xi Jinping, yes, there are elements of continuity, but there are also profound elements of change. So on the continuity front, yes, in the period of Hu Jintao, we began to see a greater Chinese experimental behavior in the South China Sea, a more robust approach to the assertion of China’s territorial claims there, for example.

But with Xi Jinping, this was taken to several extra degrees in intensity when we saw a full-blown island reclamation exercise, where you saw rocky atolls suddenly being transformed into sand-filled islands, and which were then militarized. So is that continuity or change? That becomes, I think, more of a definitional question.

If I was trying to sum up what is new, however, about Xi Jinping in contrast to his predecessors, it would probably be in these terms.

In politics, Chinese domestic politics, he has changed the discourse by taking it further to the left—by which I mean a greater role for the party and ideology, and the personal control of the leader, compared with what existed before.

On the economy we see a partial shift to the left with a resuscitation of state-owned enterprises and some disincentives emerging for the further and continued growth of China’s own hitherto successful private-sector entrepreneurial champions.

On nationalism we have seen a further push under Xi Jinping further to the right than his predecessors.

And in terms of degrees of international assertiveness, whether it’s over Hong Kong, the South China Sea, or over Taiwan, in relation to Japan and the territorial claims in the East China Sea, or with India, or in the big bilateral relationship with the United States as well as with other American allies—the Canadians, the Australians and the Europeans, et cetera—as well as big, new large-canvas foreign policy initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative, what we’ve seen is an infinitely more assertive China.

The name of the game is opacity. With Chinese domestic politics we are staring through a glass dimly.

So, yes, there are elements of continuity, but it would be foolish for us to underestimate the degree of change as a consequence of the agency of Xi Jinping’s leadership.

WPR: You mentioned the concentration of power in the leader’s hands, Xi Jinping’s hands. He’s clearly the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. At the same time and especially in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, but over the course of the last year or so, there’s been some reporting about rumbling within the Chinese Communist Party about his leadership. What do you make of those reports? Is he a leader who’s in firm control in China? Is that something that’s always somewhat at question, given the kind of internal politics of the Chinese Communist Party? Or are there potential challenges to his leadership?

Mr. Rudd: Well, in our analysis of Chinese politics, it hasn’t really changed a lot since I was a young diplomat working in Beijing in the mid-1980s, and that is: The name of the game is opacity. With Chinese domestic politics we are staring through a glass dimly. And that’s because the nature of a Marxist-Leninist party, in particular a Leninist party, is deeply secretive about its own internal operations. So we are left to speculate.

But what we know from the external record, we know that Xi Jinping, as you indicated in your question, has become China’s most powerful leader at least since Deng and probably since Mao, against most matrices of power. He’s become what is described as the “chairman of everything.” Every single leading policy group of the politburo is now chaired by him.

And on top of that, the further instruments of power consolidation have been reflected in his utilization in the anti-corruption campaign, and now the unleashing of a Party Rectification campaign, which is designed to reinforce compliance on the part of party members to central leadership diktat. So that’s the sort of individual that we have, and that’s the journey that he has traveled in the last six to seven years, and where most of his principle opponents have either been arrested or incarcerated or have committed suicide.

So where does that leave us in terms of the prospects for any organized political opposition? Under the party constitution, Xi Jinping is up for a reelect at the 20th Party Congress, and that is his reappointment as general secretary of the party and as chairman of the Central Military Commission. Separately, he’s up for a reelect by the National People’s Congress for a further term as China’s president.

For him to go a further term would be to break all the post-Deng Xiaoping conventions built around the principles of shared or collective leadership. But Xi Jinping, in my judgment, is determined to remain China’s paramount leader through the 2020s and into the 2030s. And how would he do that? He would perhaps see himself at the next Party Congress appointed as party chairman, a position last occupied by Chairman Mao and Mao’s immediate successor, Chairman Hua Guofeng.

Xi Jinping, in my judgment, is determined to remain China’s paramount leader through the 2020s and into the 2030s.

He would probably retain the position of president of the country, given the constitutional changes he brought about three years or so ago to remove the two-term limit for the presidency. And he would, I think, most certainly retain the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission.

These predispositions, however, of themselves combined with the emerging cult of personality around Xi, combined with fundamental disagreements on elements of economic policy and international policy, have created considerable walls of opposition to Xi Jinping within the Chinese Communist Party.

And the existence of that opposition is best proven by the fact that Xi Jinping, in August of 2020, decided to launch this new Party Rectification campaign in order to reestablish, from his perspective, proper party discipline—that is, obedience to Xi Jinping. So the $6,000 question is, Can these different sources of dissent within the Chinese Communist Party coalesce? There’s no obvious candidate to do the coalescing, just as Deng Xiaoping in the past was a candidate for coalescing different political and policy views to those of Mao Zedong, which is why Deng Xiaoping was purged at least two times in his latter stages of his career before his final return and rehabilitation.

So we can’t see a ready candidate, but the dynamics of Chinese politics tend to have been that if there is, however, a catastrophic event—an economic implosion, a major foreign policy or international policy mishap, misstep, or crisis or conflict which goes wrong—then these tend to generate their own dynamics. So Xi Jinping’s watchword between now and the 20th Party Congress to be held in October/November of 2022 will be to prevent any such crises from emerging.

WPR: It’s a natural transition to my next question, because another point of disagreement among China watchers is whether a lot of these moves that we’ve seen over the past five years, accelerating over the past five years, but this reassertion of the party centrality within or across all spheres of Chinese society, but also some of the international moves, whether they’re signs of strength in the face of what they see as a waning United States, or whether they’re signs of weakness and a sense of having to move faster than perhaps was previously anticipated? A lot of the challenges that China faces, whether it can become a rich country before it becomes an old country, some of the environmental degradation that its development has caused, none of them are going away and none of them have gone away. So what’s your view on that in terms of China’s future prospects? Do you see a continued rise? A leveling off? The danger of a failing China and everything that that might imply?

Mr. Rudd: Well, there are a bunch of questions embedded in what you’re saying, but I’d begin by saying that Americans shouldn’t talk themselves out of global leadership in the future. America remains a powerful country in economic terms, in technological terms and in military terms, and against all three measures still today more powerful than China. In the case of the military, significantly more powerful than China.

Of course, the gap begins to narrow, but this narrowing process is not overnight, it takes a long period of time, and there are a number of potential mishaps for China. An anecdote from the Chinese commentariat recently—in a debate about America’s preparedness to go into armed conflict or war with China in the South China Sea or over Taiwan, and the Chinese nationalist constituency in China basically chanting, “Bring it on.” If people chant, “USA,” in the United States, similar gatherings would probably chant, “PRC,” in Beijing.

But it was interesting what a Chinese scholar had to say as this debate unfolded, when one of the commentators said, “Well, at the end of the day, America is a paper tiger.” Of course, that was a phrase used by Mao back in the 1950s, ‘60s. The response from the Chinese scholar in China’s online discourse was, “No, America is not a paper tiger. America is a tiger with real teeth.”

So it’s important for Americans to understand that they are still in an extraordinarily powerful position in relation to both China and the rest of the world. So the question becomes one ultimately of the future leadership direction in the United States.

When we seek to understand China’s international behavior, the beginning of wisdom is to understand its domestic politics, to the extent that we can.

The second point I’d make in response to your question is that, when we seek to understand China’s international behavior, the beginning of wisdom is to understand its domestic politics, to the extent that we can. So when we are asked questions about strength or weakness, or why is China in the COVID world doubling down on its posture towards Hong Kong, the South China Sea, towards Taiwan, the East China Sea, Japan, as well as other countries like India, Canada, Australia, and some of the Europeans and the United States.

Well, I think the determination on the part of Xi Jinping’s leadership was to make it plain to all that China had not been weakened by COVID-19. Is that a sign of weakness or of strength? I think that again becomes a definitional question.

In terms of Chinese domestic politics, however, if Xi Jinping is under attack in terms of his political posture at home and the marginalization of others within the Chinese Communist Party, if he is under attack in terms of its direction on economic policy, with the slowing of growth even in the pre-COVID period, then of course from Xi Jinping’s perspective, the best way to deal with any such dissension on the home front is to become more nationalist on the foreign front. And we’ve seen evidence of that. Is that strength, or is it weakness? Again, it’s a definitional question, but it’s the reality of what we’re dealing with.

For the future, I think ultimately what Xi Jinping’s administration will be waiting for is what sort of president emerges from November of 2020. If Trump is victorious, I think Xi Jinping will privately be pretty happy about that, because he sees the Trump administration on the one hand being hard-lined towards China, but utterly chaotic in its management of America’s national China strategy—strong on some things, weak on the other, vacillating between A and B above—and ultimately a divisive figure in terms of the solidarity of American alliances around the world.

If Biden wins, I think the judgment in China will be that America could seriously get its act back together again, run a coherent hard-line national comprehensive China strategy. Secondly, do so—unlike the Trump administration—with the friends and allies around the world in full harness and incorporative harness. So it really does depend on what the United States chooses to do in terms of its own national leadership, and therefore foreign policy direction for the future.

WPR: You mentioned the question of whether the U.S. is a paper tiger or not. Clearly in terms of military assets and capabilities, it’s not, but there’s been some strategic debate in Australia over the past five years or so—and I’m thinking particularly of Hugh White and his line of analysis—the idea that regardless of what America can do, that there really won’t be, when push comes to shove, the will to engage in the kind of military conflict that would be required to respond, for instance, to Chinese aggression or attempt to reunify militarily with Taiwan, let alone something like the Senkaku islands, the territorial dispute with Japan. And the recently released Australian Defense White Paper suggests that there’s a sense that the U.S. commitment to mutual defense in the Asia-Pacific might be waning. So what are your thoughts about the future of American primacy in Asia? And you mentioned it’s a question of leadership, but are you optimistic about the public support in America for that historical project? And if not, what are the implications for Australia, for other countries in Asia and the world?

Mr. Rudd: Well, it’s been a while since I’ve been in rural Pennsylvania. So it’s hard for me to answer your question. [Laughter] I am obviously both a diplomat by training and a politician, so I kind of understand the policy world, but I also understand rural politics.

It does depend on which way the American people go. When I look at the most recent series of findings from the Pew Research Project on American attitudes to the world, what I find interesting is that contrary to many of the assumptions by the American political class, that nearly three-quarters of Americans are strongly supportive of trade and strongly supportive of variations of free trade. If you listen to the populist commentary in the United States, you would think that notions of free trade had become a bit like the anti-Christ.

So therefore I think it will be a challenge for the American political class to understand that the American public, at least reflected in these polling numbers on trade, are still fundamentally internationally engaged, and therefore are not in support of America incrementally withdrawing from global economic leadership. On the question of political leadership and America’s global national security role and its regional national security role in the Asia Pacific, again it’s a question of the proper harnessing of American resources.

The bottom line is that if you look at the history of America’s engagement strategy with China and the engagement strategy of many of America’s allies over the decades, it has always been engagement, but hedge.

I think one of the great catastrophes of the last 20 years was America’s decision to invade Iraq. You flushed up a whole lot of political capital and foreign policy capital around the world against the wall. You expended so much in blood and treasure that I think the political wash through also in America itself was a deep set of reservations in American voters about, let’s call it extreme foreign policy folly.

Remember, that enterprise was about eliminating weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush administration alleged to exist in Saddam Hussein’s bathroom locker, and they never did. So we’re partly experiencing the wash up of all of that in the American body politic, where there is a degree of, shall we say, exhaustion about unnecessary wars and about unnecessary foreign policy engagement. So the wisdom for the future will be what is necessary, as opposed to that which is marginal.

Now, I would think, on that basis, given the galvanizing force of American public sentiment—on COVID questions, on trade and investment questions, on national security questions, and on human rights questions—that the No. 1 foreign policy priority for the United States, for the period ahead, will be China. And so what I therefore see is that the centrality of future U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat, is likely to be galvanized by a finding from the American people that, contrary to any of the urban myths, that the American people still want to see their country become more prosperous through trade. They want their country to become bigger through continued immigration—another finding in terms of Pew research. And they want their country to deal with the greatest challenge to America’s future, which is China’s rise.

So that is different from becoming deeply engaged and involved in every nuance of national security policy in the eastern reaches of either Libya or in the southern slopes of Lebanon. There has been something of a long-term Middle Eastern quagmire, and I think the wake-up call of the last several years has been for America to say that if there’s to be a second century of American global leadership, another Pax Americana for the 21st century, then it will ultimately be resolved on whether America rises to the global economic challenge, the global technology leadership challenge and the global China challenge.

And I think the American people in their own wonderfully, shall we say unorchestrated way, but subject to the bully pulpit of American presidential leadership and politics, can harness themselves for that purpose.

WPR: So much of the West’s engagement with China over the past 30 years has been this calculated gamble on what kind of power China would be when it did achieve great power status, and this idea that trade and engagement would pull China more toward being the kind of power that’s compatible with the international order, the postwar American-led international order. Do you think we have an answer to that question yet, and has the gamble of engaging with China paid off?

Mr. Rudd: The bottom line is that if you look at the history of America’s engagement strategy with China and the engagement strategy of many of America’s allies over the decades—really since the emergence of Deng in the late ‘70s and recommenced in the aftermath of Tiananmen, probably from about 1992, 1993—it has always been engagement, but hedge. In other words, there was engagement with China across all the instrumentalities of the global economy and global political and economic governance, and across the wide panoply of the multilateral system.

But there was always a conditionality and there was always a condition, which is, countries like the United States were not about to deplete their military, even after it won the Cold War against the Soviet Union. And America did not deplete its military. America’s military remained formidable. There are ebbs and flows in the debate, but the capabilities remained world class and dominant. And so in fairness to those who prosecuted that strategy of engagement, it always was engagement plus hedge.

I think there is a degree of excessive pessimism when you look at America through the Washington lens, that nothing is happening. Well, a lot is.

And so what’s happened as China’s leadership direction has itself changed over the last six or seven years under Xi Jinping, is the hedge component of engagement has reared its head and said, “Well, I’m glad we did so.” Because we still, as the United States, have the world’s most powerful military. We still, as the United States, are the world’s technology leaders—including in artificial intelligence, despite all the hype coming out of Beijing. We are the world’s leaders when it comes to the core driver of the future of artificial intelligence, which is the production of computer chips, of semiconductors and other fundamental advances in computing. And you still are the world’s leaders in the military. And so therefore America is not in a hugely disadvantageous position. And on top of all the above, you still retain the global reserve currency called the U.S. dollar.

Each of these is under challenge by China. China is pursuing a highly systematic strategy to close the gap in each of these domains. But I think there is a degree of excessive pessimism when you look at America through the Washington lens, that nothing is happening. Well, a lot is. You go to Silicon Valley, you go to the Pacific Fleet, you go to the New York Stock Exchange, and you look at the seminal debates in Hong Kong at the moment, about whether Hong Kong will remain linked between the Hong Kong dollar and the U.S. dollar.

All this speaks still to the continued strength of America’s position, but it really does depend on whether you choose to husband these strengths for the future, and whether you choose to direct them in the future towards continued American global leadership of what we call the rules-based liberal international order.

WPR: Mr. Rudd, thank you so much for being so generous with your time and your insights.

Kevin Rudd: Good to be with you.

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