US-Chinese Pressure Points Are Becoming Dangerous, Former Australian Prime Minister Says

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This picture taken on Nov. 6, 2018 shows a Chinese and U.S. flag at a booth during the first China International Import Expo in Shanghai. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on Nov. 6, 2018 shows a Chinese and U.S. flag at a booth during the first China International Import Expo in Shanghai. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

As the pandemic continues to dampen economic prospects around the world, tensions between the two largest economies are mounting.

China and the United States have been squabbling over the virus, trade, Hong Kong and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister, worries this feud is getting out of hand. He's now the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, and wrote about his fears in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

The growing tensions between China and the U.S. could lead to a crisis — even armed conflict, Rudd fears.

“The reason for writing the article is because I think the risks are now real,” he says. “Political tensions between the two countries are at an all-time high, at least over the last 50 years.”

As the U.S. focuses on the coming presidential election, Chinese President Xi Jinping is under internal pressure over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s relationships with various other countries, Rudd says.

Xi is also facing growing criticism from President Trump, who says China chose not to stop the virus and has called the coronavirus the “Kung flu” and “Chinese virus.”

Trump’s rhetoric matters in China and contributes to the deteriorating relationship between the two countries, Rudd says. Because of the country’s strong sense of nationalism, China feels it needs to respond to these remarks, he says.

If a crisis erupted between the two countries, Rudd says managing the conflict would be difficult.

“If the political nature of the relationship between Beijing and Washington continues to deteriorate, if you then in that context have an incident, an unplanned incident — an accident at sea or in the air, and there have been so many near misses over the last several years,” he says, “then the politics of all this just makes it very difficult to handle escalation and then to de-escalate.”

To improve the relationship between the U.S. and China, both sides would need to agree to pause and reset, he says.

“In the case of the overall U.S.-China bilateral relationship, the list of disagreements now of a fundamental nature is a very long one: right across the national security space, right across foreign policy, economic policy, trade, investment, technology, Huawei, human rights,” he says. “The list is formidable.”

Interview Highlights 

On the pressure President Xi faces in China

“In the period since the COVID-19 crisis hit in China, Xi Jinping himself has come under considerable internal criticism over his own handling of the crisis. Then, with the slowing of the economy, with rising unemployment and of course, further criticism as well in terms of the deterioration of China's relationship with a number of countries, not just the United States, but with Japan, with various countries in Southeast Asia, with India on the border, and with various of the Europeans as well, Canada and Australia, to be thrown into the mix. So for these various reasons, there has been a reasonably fast and furious debate underway within Chinese politics. Very little of this is fully visible to the external eye. But there was enough indication to suggest that President Xi himself is under some internal pressure, hence why questions which arise from a crisis are difficult to handle at times like this.”

On parts of the South China Sea, which China and multiple other countries claim sovereignty over

“With the South China Sea, where you do have multiple claimant states, the United States has intensified its number of Freedom of Navigation Operations, deploying naval vessels through the area. Several years ago, there would have been about two such operations each year. Now we're up to about nine or 10 per year. And also, in the case of the U.S., they go within the 12-mile limit, which China has declared surrounding its territorial claims in the South China Sea. In response to this increased activity by the United States, there have been further deployment of aircraft by the Chinese Air Force. And on top of that, the United States has issued a change in its declaratory position on the legal claims or the foundation of the legal claims issued by China about its territorial position in the area as well. Put all these factors together, it does contribute to a serious intensification. And that's why many of us who follow this relationship closely have been issuing alarms of one form or another.”

On how to improve the relationship between the U.S. and China

“If any significant improvement was to occur in the relationship, both sides would need to agree to push the pause button and to engage in some level of reset. As far as China is concerned, for example, a positive way to improve the relationship with the United States would be to stop any further repressive measures in Hong Kong. If China was serious about wanting to improve the overall dynamics of the political relationship with Washington, it could start by, as it were, de-escalating political tensions within Hong Kong itself. That would be positive across the board.”

On if China would take measures to improve its relationship with the U.S.

“In terms of how Beijing is now looking at the overall dynamics of its relationship with Washington, it is difficult to see what China's next steps will be. The next three months in the U.S. presidential election context loom as the most dangerous of all because the political stakes in Washington are high and they are high in Beijing as well. On the Chinese side, I think they are trying to signal that they would like to see an overall de-escalation in the immediate period ahead. But speeches are one thing. Concrete actions, for example in Hong Kong, are another. We would need to wait and see.”

On COVID-19 in Australia, where only 450 people have died compared to 172,000 in the U.S.

“COVID-19 has affected all countries. Australia has not escaped that. At present, there are still considerable concerns in Melbourne, the capital of the state of Victoria. However, the problem here in Australia is relatively small compared with what our friends in America have been going through. As for the future, in terms of the lifting of restrictions in travel between the two countries, frankly, that will depend entirely upon the further success by the Australian authorities in bringing the situation in Melbourne under control and the reverse in terms of the principal arrival points in the U.S. for flights from Australia. That is, what will the situation be in LA and San Francisco and New York and elsewhere? I think we are a long way off. We in this country hope that we will get past this sooner rather than later.

“Here in Australia, it is very much an unusual sense of this country, which is a long way from most places in the world, feeling more isolated than usual. And we all look forward to the day when all of us can get back to something which begins to approximate to normality.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on August 19, 2020.


Headshot of Jeremy Hobson

Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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