Countries should unite against China’s growing economic and geopolitical coercion or risk being singled out and punished by Beijing, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has told the BBC.
Mr Rudd said governments in the West should not be afraid to challenge China on issues such as human rights.
Around the world, countries are navigating a new geopolitical order framed by the rising dominance of China.
“If you are going to have a disagreement with Beijing, as many governments around the world are now doing, it’s far better to arrive at that position conjointly with other countries rather than unilaterally, because it makes it easier for China to exert bilateral leverage against you,” Mr Rudd told the BBC’s Talking Business Asia programme.
His comments come as relations between Australia and China have deteriorated to their worst point in decades. The relationship has soured following a series of economic and diplomatic blows dealt by each side.
Australia has scrapped agreements tied to China’s massive infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative. It also banned Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei from building the country’s 5G network.
But it was really Australia’s call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic that set off a new storm between the two sides.
China retaliated by placing sanctions on Australian imports – including wine, beef, lobster and barley – and has hinted more may come.
Beijing has also suspended key economic dialogues with Canberra, which effectively means there is no high-level contact to smooth things out.
A new battleground
Mr Rudd, who led Australia twice between 2007 and 2013, has criticised the current government’s approach to China, saying that it has been counterproductive at times.
“The conservative government’s response to the Chinese has from time to time been measured – but other times, frankly, has been rhetorical and shrill,” said Mr Rudd, who is now president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
The former Labor party prime minister believes it could risk the fortunes of a key Australian export to China: iron ore.
“They [the Chinese leadership] will see Australia as an unreliable supplier of iron ore long term, because of the geopolitical conclusions that Beijing will make in relation to… the conservative government in Canberra.
“That long-term supply may be put at risk because of geopolitical factors.”
A fifth of Australia’s exports go to China, an economic relationship that has only grown in importance in the last few decades.
Taking on China
Increasingly countries – especially those ideologically allied with the US – are speaking out against China. In many ways, they followed the lead of the US.
Under former President Donald Trump, America launched a bitter trade war with China, imposing tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods.
That sparked a tit-for-tat battle over trade with China, and changed the tone of relations between the two countries.
China had hoped that under President Joe Biden things might be different, but that hasn’t been the case.
While trade negotiations are ongoing, this week Kurt Campbell, the American deputy assistant to President Biden on national security issues, said the US was effectively done with the period of engagement with China.
In the past many countries, including Australia and the US, had a different approach to China. As China grew richer, there was also a sense it would grow more free.
Engagement and dialogue were the ways the global community tried to navigate China, but there appears to be growing consensus that is not working.
Mr Rudd said navigating China means picking your battles.
“China won’t like it,” he said, referencing growing concerns directed at China’s treatment of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang, as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“But the fact that China doesn’t like something doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of us shouldn’t do it.
“That is not to say that you go and pick a fight with China every day of the week,” he added.
Mr Rudd, who speaks fluent Mandarin, dismissed criticisms that he was perhaps naïve or optimistic about China when he was in office.
He said he raised a number of concerns with the Chinese government on human rights.
“I’ve had many, many disagreements with China on human rights in the past,” he told the BBC.
“On my first visit to Beijing as prime minister, I delivered an address at Peking University in Chinese criticising China’s human rights performance.”
However, he said the manner in which he conducted the relationship with China was diplomatic.
“It was hardline, but we also managed to preserve the overall balance of the relationship.”