When the then-Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd met Xi Jinping in June 2010, they discussed contemporary Chinese history over an open fire late into the evening. Rudd was struck by Xi’s expertise, and believes this intellectual grounding sets him apart from his recent predecessors. Speaking to me recently from Brisbane, Rudd, 64, said there were two types of political leaders: pragmatic journeymen, and those who seek to engineer era-defining change. From those early meetings with the then vice-president of China, Rudd knew Xi saw himself as the latter: a “man of history and a man of destiny”.
Since that meeting, Xi has brought about a new era of Chinese politics. While Chairman Mao put politics “first, second and third, and the economy fourth”, the consensus changed after his death in 1976 and the reforms two years later that opened China’s economy to the world. As Rudd framed it, the approach became to “put the economy first, put politics second, and don’t engage much in foreign policy other than to boost the economy”. Xi upended that consensus.
Rudd’s conversations with Xi were held in Chinese – a language he learned while studying at the Australian National University. Although neither of his parents went to high school, Rudd describes his mother as a “classic self-educated woman” who fed him “books and articles”. Brought up on a dairy farm in Queensland, he used to “disappear to the far end of the farm, usually with a book and a little satchel”, sit under a tree, “escape from everything and read”. Rudd was 11 when his father died, after which his mother retrained as a nurse.
Sporting a black hoody and narrow-rimmed glasses, Rudd popped on to screen for our meeting a few minutes late. “Freddie, sorry… I thought it was at half past the hour, not at quarter past… How are you? How is her Britannic majesty’s realm?” His warm, convivial demeanour belied the determination that has shaped his career.
After graduating, Rudd joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and quickly rose to become first secretary of the Beijing embassy. Motivated by social democratic principles, and imbued with his Christianity, he was elected as a Labor MP in 1998 and won a landslide election to become prime minister in December 2007. His government ratified the Kyoto protocol on climate change, withdrew Australian troops from Iraq, and ensured Australia avoided recession in 2008. But an internal party coup thrust him from power just days after his meeting with Xi in June 2010, before he briefly returned as prime minister from June to September 2013. Since leaving office, Rudd has maintained the “intellectual fascination” with China he cultivated as a teenager; he is currently studying for a doctorate at Oxford University on Xi Jinping.
Neither Xi nor Rudd’s successor as prime minister, Scott Morrison, took the lead in combating climate change at the recent Cop26 summit. Morrison only agreed to attend after mounting international pressure, and the commitment to achieve net zero by 2050 came grudgingly. Xi, meanwhile, declined to go at all, and his refusal to bring China’s net zero plans forward from 2060 has raised questions about his commitment to mitigating climate change.
Speaking to me before Cop26 took place, Rudd was more optimistic. “It’s quite plain” to Beijing, Rudd argued, that “the science is in” and China needs to adapt. Consequently, however, China will expect drastic reductions from the US and other major emitters.
[See also: Can the world trust China on climate change?]
Climate is just one of many areas where China could potentially clash with much of the West, which has come to realise that Beijing will not liberalise as it economically develops. Instead, when characterising China’s “grand strategy”, Rudd noted three core ideological undercurrents that form Beijing’s economic and foreign policy.
First, China’s domineering relationship with its neighbours is shaped by its perception that it sits atop a regional hierarchy rooted in its imperial past. Second, the Chinese Communist Party’s Marxist-Leninism results in the dual conclusions that China’s time has come and the struggle between reactionary and progressive forces places China in opposition to the United States. The third undercurrent is national reunification with Taiwan – what Rudd describes as the central organising principle of China’s plans for East Asia.
These three factors are pushing China under Xi “towards an increasingly assertive posture”, combined with the assumption “that the West and the United States are in forms of irreversible decline, and that China is rising and resuming its historical place”. Rudd does not think a military confrontation between China and the US is inevitable. Instead, he wants guardrails placed around certain issues to prevent conflict and enable dialogue.
The tenor of Rudd’s approach is markedly different from the “golden era” of UK-China relations heralded by David Cameron and George Osborne in the 2010s. In recent years the Conservatives have hardened their tone towards China. What does Rudd make of the UK government’s current policy? “Look, Boris Johnson I find very difficult to track on China for the simple reason that strategic consistency doesn’t seem to be a particular priority for the current British prime minister,” Rudd replied. “There are so many swings and roundabouts in British policy… on China that it’s just difficult to map and to track.”
While Rudd told me it’s not his “place” to provide public advice to the British government, he thinks there is “work to be done” on the UK’s strategy on China. “My simple observation to the British would be it is of paramount importance to have a well-considered internal operational strategy for dealing with China’s challenges and opportunities.”
He is clear that without a coherent strategy from the West, China will be emboldened. “In my long experience of dealing with the People’s Republic, going back more than 35 years since I was a diplomat in our embassy in Beijing, [I’ve learned] they respect strength and are contemptuous of weakness; they respect consistency and are confused by vacillation.”
A key part of “Global Britain” – the government’s slogan for its post-Brexit foreign policy – has been the pivot to the Indo-Pacific. Some have criticised the move as an illusory estimation of the UK’s influence around the world. Rudd, meanwhile, argues China will view it as a weaker international player after Brexit. He’s sceptical that “returning to the fond embrace of the world’s sons and daughters of empire” can replace the benefits of EU membership. As he put it: “It’s just so much Tory bullshit that it’s not even worth thinking about.”
Describing himself as an “antipodean Remainer”, Rudd believes “you blokes shot yourself in both feet by leaving the European Union”. His criticism is rooted in the attitude – which he says is prevalent in Australian politics – that “we want Britain to succeed”. “I almost cried when you guys left,” he laughed. “I just thought it was so bad for Britain’s interests, and frankly the liberal democratic order’s interests across the world.”
Rudd urges the British government to join with other non-American liberal democracies to become the “engine room of holding the international liberal democratic order together”. According to him, this is a “live consideration” in Berlin and Paris and “it should be a continuing live consideration in London”.
“Worst-case scenario, the Republican isolationists re-emerge in Washington in 2024. I hope it doesn’t [happen]. But Europe, including Britain, and in particular the big three of Europe, must become the ballast and the fulcrum of sustaining the machinery and the substance of the liberal international order,” he said. “Otherwise, the institutions will crumble.”