Webinar: Kevin Rudd and Helen Clark discuss increasingly assertive China

Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Helen Clark looked at the rise and ambitions of contemporary China under the leadership of Xi Jinping for a webinar in October co-hosted by the Asia New Zealand Foundation and the Helen Clark Foundation. In this article, Asia New Zealand Foundation director research and engagement Suzannah Jessep notes some of her key takeaways.

Watch a recording of the webinar

Much of the webinar centred around the tension between China’s mounting economic and military heft on the one hand, and its confrontational and divisive behaviour on the other.

Rudd noted that Australia – with its recently agreed AUKUS deal (that will see it more deeply embedded in the US security establishment) and recent high-profile trade dispute with China – has an acute sense of this tension, even if Australian politicians’ behaviour unhelpfully “added fuel to the fire".

He doubted whether Australia, and to some extent New Zealand, fully appreciate the scale of the fallout that could impact the region in the event economic (or indeed military) relations with China significantly deteriorate. He noted that both countries sent a significant proportion of their exports to China and if this were to be disrupted, it would have a huge impact on their growth and prosperity. Any military confrontation would be an order of magnitude worse than this.

Clark made the point that China's public diplomacy has become characterized by “wolf warrior” tactics – showing a level of aggression and combativeness unusual in conventional diplomacy.

Research has shown that these tactics have not played well for China on the international stage, with a securitised view of China eclipsing its reputation as an economic powerhouse. In the case of South Korea, more Koreans now distrust China than they do Japan – despite deep and longstanding challenges in the Korea-Japan relationship stemming back to Japanese colonial rule. In New Zealand and Australia, similar trends are playing out, with more Kiwis and Australians seeing China as a threat than a friend, despite sizable trade relations.

One of the well-known features of China’s diplomacy is its preference for bilateral engagement over multilateral. Rudd argued this gives China the upper hand, enabling it to use its economic and military heft as leverage (both carrot and stick) in order to secure outcomes favourable to China’s wider interests, while side-stepping other restrictions including – in some cases – international law.

In larger multilateral fora, the room for leverage is considerably less. However, Rudd noted that China’s quest for international legitimacy means it pays close attention to multilateral organisations like the United Nations, which ultimately presents the “consolidated view of the international community” and is less easy for China’s famous wolf warriors to disregard as the subjective and fallacious views of a single country.

For this reason, Rudd argued that it was more effective for countries to try to manage their differences with China through multilateral architecture and in the company of other countries, as Australia is now endeavouring to do through the World Trade Organisation.

China is also utilising multilateral trade architecture to shape its reputation, and to present itself as a champion of globalisation. Rudd said China's decision to apply to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP), hot on the heels of Taiwan, was a tactical demonstration of China’s more nimble multilateral economic diplomacy.

He said it was “worth calling China’s bluff” to see whether it could actually meet the conditions for accession - either way, China knows the symbolism is important.

He added that China knows “the Biden Administration is weak on global free trade,” and the challenge for the Americans is “to realise this is the real soft underbelly of American strategic policy.”

The dialogue concluded with an acknowledgement of just how much and how fast China has changed over the years. The China of today is more confident, assertive, and increasingly more dominant.

The behaviour of contemporary China has real consequences for New Zealand, Australia and the global community.  At a time of heightened tension – particularly between major powers – it is important for cool heads to prevail. This is a message for China as much as it is for Western governments.

As China grows, and as others adjust to its greater sway in international affairs, it is important to continue to invest in international architecture, to give relationships structure and provide options to work through differences and de-escalate tensions.