Rating Rudd's China legacy

Kevin Rudd's approach to China defied allegations that he was just an appeaser, the 'Manchurian Candidate'. So what is the former prime minister's legacy on the world's emerging superpower?

Lowy Interpreter
A major aspect of the Rudd years was China. At the time of the Chinese Olympic torch protests in Australia, I received an unusual call to come to the Lodge on an unrelated matter, and remember waiting for some time as Rudd dealt with the shenanigans the Chinese were pulling. When eventually we sat down to talk, it was not hard to discern that the Chinese were clearly (and seemingly pointlessly) rubbing the new prime minister the wrong way.

But almost from the get-go the media got Rudd wrong on China. Far from being the Manchurian Candidate, WikiLeaks cables revealed him to be as clear-headed about China and Chinese negotiating strategies as he was in private during that meeting at the Lodge.

According to officials, Rudd led serious Cabinet-level contemplation of Australia's approach to its single largest trading partner, and although it has not been made public until today, produced the first ever (and still secret) Cabinet-approved strategy mapping out our approach to China.

Under his watch, Australia also produced a highly ambitious Defence White Paper, setting up what is essentially a Marine Expeditionary Force designed to be plugged directly into any major US operation in the Pacific (read defence against China). And although it was his successor as PM who ultimately oversaw the delivery, Rudd must be credited with laying some of the groundwork that has seen the US establish what is basically a permanent military base in Australia.

But Rudd was not all muscle and no diplomacy. His Peking University speech was an attempt to engage the Chinese government in a new style of dialogue. And he allocated $100 million to establish a China Centre at the ANU that should aspire to be the world's leading research centre on the subject.

For all the claims about being the Manchurian Candidate, Rudd's approach towards China was about as hard-nosed as you are likely to see from either side of Australian politics. It was brutal in its acknowledgment of the downside risks China's rise presents while championing the opportunity.

What also seems noteworthy about Rudd's approach was that in most instances he stood his ground with the Chinese government. Even as China overtook Japan to become Australia's largest trading partner, Rudd did not succumb to the temptation to lie down when the Chinese tried to steamroll Australian principles and values.

In the torch relay dispute, despite repeated attempts, the Chinese ambassador failed to exercise Chinese sovereignty in Australia. What's more, Rebiya Kadeer got her visa (and the Chinese government made her and her cause famous in Australia), and even if it was untidy, China was unable to buy a larger stake in Rio Tinto. The Dalai Lama was the clear exception to this values-based diplomacy, but maybe Rudd and his ministerial successor agree he is just a 'Cunning Monk'.

What will Rudd's China legacy be? Well, if 'Thoughtlines' is any indication, his successor has a somewhat different approach towards China. That might see the corners of the Rudd approach smoothed. But ultimately, Rudd's China policy will be used by all states with a major stake in the Asia Pacific region. China's authoritarian leadership and massive development challenges make predictions about whether it will rise peacefully a best guess only. Any prudent government will have to hedge.

Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.