In Box

Epiphanies from Kevin Rudd

Australia's former prime minister on tensions in the Pacific, China's leadership, and the language of diplomacy.

The Chinese love to say that their country is a difficult place for outsiders to understand. Kevin Rudd, who has spent a lifetime studying China, agrees. Rudd, who twice served as Australia's prime minister, started learning Chinese in the 1970s. When he embarked on his political rise, after stints in the Australian Embassy in Beijing and as a China consultant for the accounting firm KPMG, Rudd kept up his Mandarin and his China contacts. According to a U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, he once described himself as a "brutal realist" when it comes to China. Today, Rudd remains an astute, opinionated observer of Beijing's opaque political system and its knotty international affairs. In December, Foreign Policy spoke with Rudd in New York about Xi Jinping, Henry Kissinger, the importance of language, and the territorial dispute between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea. Rudd insists there's no "easy fix" to the dispute, which threatens to incite a war: "Anyone who thinks there is a neat negotiating point to bring these guys together on this question is probably smoking something."

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There's a long historical toxicity to the Sino-Japanese relationship. The challenge is to stabilize the dispute and create new political ballasts in other domains, like economic and commercial affairs, as well as political and security engagement. The key issue is to get both sides to concur that a status quo is being preserved, so that the relationship can develop in other directions and dimensions.

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Likening Chinese President Xi Jinping to former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and Mao Zedong is the product of lazy Western journalism. It's much more complex than that. He's certainly not Gorbachev, because Xi does not have any stated interest in democratization. It's not on the table. In terms of a Mao analogy, people are grasping at straws in the wind. They see some of Xi's behavior, like criticism campaigns, and they say that equals Mao, equals hard left. I think that is shortsighted.

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The closest analogy is with Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader for the 1980s and 1990s. Xi understands the historical significance of the continued reform of the economy to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and to what he describes as China's long-term renaissance, or fuxing. If I'm looking for a political template, it's very much in the tradition of Deng. Never forget, Deng was not a liberal political reformer.

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Xi's government does not have any plans to evolve a democratic plural system. However, it does have plans to evolve, for economic and commercial purposes, a more independent commercial arbitration system. Once you start talking about individual property rights and the need for courts to independently and fairly make judgments on property and commercial disputes, that itself sets up new forces for change.

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East Asia is home to a series of 19th-century-type classical security policy challenges, underpinned by continuing territorial disputes. It is an unfolding 21st-century economic reality, with military establishments dealing with contingencies, which remind me of Europe sometime between 1870 and 1914. This analogy is useful, not least because it can show our European friends how sharp the edges are in East Asia and the West Pacific.

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As a Mandarin-speaking prime minister, I got double the time with Xi because we didn't need an interpreter. It might be an old-fashioned view, but language is important. It conveys respect, familiarity, and some knowledge of where the hell you're coming from.

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Henry Kissinger has played a very valuable role between the United States and China. Even Henry, however, would admit to his own mortality. There still continues to be an important bridging role between China and the United States. Even after being in this business for 30 years, I'm constantly struck by how often things are literally lost in translation. Sometimes it's useful to be able to quietly, effectively talk with both sides.

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If I were to give you an example of talking quietly with both sides, it would no longer be a quiet conversation. Nice try. I might be from Australia, but I'm not slow.

Illustration by Robert Ball

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