According to Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister of Australia, the questions that should shape the examination of Chinese policy are: whether China’s rise can be sustained until the 2049 centenary; whether it will at some point equal the position of the United States; whether China has a ‘strategic blueprint’ for Asia; and finally, whether China seeks to change the existing global order.

Rudd delivered the 2013 Alastair Buchan lecture on ‘China’s Impact on Regional and Global Order’ at the IISS in London on 16 December. He warned that, while there are any number of daily events to distract our attention, it is important not to lose sight of the ‘mega changes’ taking place in the background.

He argued that the political, economic and military rise of China will come to dominate international affairs, and that it is therefore crucial to understand the nation’s plans and motivations. Rudd discussed the upcoming ‘dual centenaries’ in 2021 and 2049 (of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and of People’s China respectively) and President Xi Jinping’s ‘dream for China’s future’, in which he hopes, by 2049, that China will have been restored to the position of global pre-eminence that it enjoyed in imperial times.

China’s rapid rise, particularly in contrast with the decline of most other powers, has caused a lot of anxiety, but Rudd was optimistic that ‘there is sufficient confluence between Chinese and Western interests and values concerning the future of the international order that together, we can construct a common path through’. The main area of tension that Rudd identified was between Xi’s need to maintain peaceful relationships with other powers so as not to endanger his economic growth model, and the domestic pressure he faces to defend China’s territorial claims.

This tension is most clear when it comes to China’s ‘new type of great power relationship’ with the US; they must avoid conflict at all costs, but for China, a precondition of a new cooperative relationship is that the US respect China’s national interests, particularly over Taiwan and the South China Sea. Conversely, the US sees the new relationship as one through which it can lead China to a greater participation in global institutions and affairs, and in which China can take a greater share of the burden of international responsibility. Crucially, Rudd added, this does not involve acknowledging China as an equal or recognising its territorial demands.

China has shown some interest in greater global involvement, particularly through BRICS schemes and certain UN institutions – but on its own terms. Rudd argued that if China seeks to ‘move the international order in a more just and equitable direction’, as State Councillor Yang Jiechi recently stated, the international community must encourage China to be more transparent about what its terms are.

Rudd suggested that sharper analysis and clarification were necessary for a smooth transition of the global order: to avoid ‘strategic drift’ and the associated conflicts that arise from misunderstanding and suspicion, China must be more open about its positions. Equally, the rest of the world must not ignore it.

Watch the lecture.

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