Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says the Australian Government has "thrown petrol on the fire" of what was already a difficult relationship between China and Australia in order to appeal to hardline voters.
He says Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton engage in inflammatory political rhetoric rather than engaging in a more sophisticated diplomacy.
Rudd is president of the New York-based Asia Society and speaks Mandarin. He is a former Foreign Minister, a former diplomat who served in Beijing, and a former China scholar.
He answered a range of questions including China's hostility towards Australia in terms of trade reprisals on imports, China's application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and the Aukus alliance between Australia, US and Britain.
Discussing the poor relationship between Australia and China, Rudd said between 30 per cent 40 per cent of Australian exports went to China and few Australians were aware of what a comprehensive collapse of trade with China would have on growth, jobs and living standards.
He had witnessed various crises affecting China over many years, some domestically driven such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, which happened when he was a young diplomat in Beijing, to crises over the Taiwan Strait, and the bombing of its Belgrade embassy in 1999 by the US.
"But China is now not a 100lb gorilla, it's a 1000lb gorilla in the front living room."
And President Xi Jinping's strategy had changed.
"Rather than simply being in a passive position in global and regional policy, it is now active and assertive and we have seen that - the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, East China Sea, the Sino-Indian border, global governance, global institutions, wolf warrior diplomacy, you name it."
The manifestations of the assertiveness were not uniquely toward Canberra. Most of China's neighbours were in a not dissimilar set of circumstances.
Another factor in Australia's relationship was its strong relationship with the United States through the 70-year-old Anzus Treaty.
"The dynamics of the US-China relationship directly impact the Australia-China relationship because of the operation of the Anzus Treaty. "
Another factor related to Australian domestic politics.
"This is where I think the current conservative Government of Australia has taken what is already a difficult set of structural challenges to the Australia-China relationship… and then thrown petrol on the fire through its rolling use of inflammatory political rhetoric, aimed in part at simply cultivating a voter-response and more hardline voter base within Australia itself focused against communist China."
Rudd said he was not advocating that Australia under any circumstances should remain silent in response to what China does and says.
"But there is a difference between what I describe in being robust in what we stand for and being egregious in the type of inflammatory political rhetoric which Morrison and the Defence Minister Dutton in particular hurl at the Chinese on a regular basis almost, in my judgment, hoping that there will be an incendiary response.
"Then you add to that the ad-mixture of wolf warrior diplomacy, then these things compound, a bit like a rolling chemical experiment like phosphorus on water and it buzzes around the place and creates additional levels of apparent friction and sometimes real friction."
He said he was critical that the Australian Government took a real problem and challenge and then turbo-charged the difficulty by the manner in which it conducted what he called megaphone diplomacy – "as opposed to being substantively interested and engaged in the management of this complexity in what I would describe as a more sophisticated diplomacy. "
Asked about China's recent application to join the 11-country CPPTPP, Rudd said Australia and New Zealand needed to keep an open mind.
The United States backed the CPTPP under President Barack Obama, withdrew under Donald Trump and has remained outside under Joe Biden.
"I think we need to look at the Chinese application through two lenses; the first is quite clever and nimble Chinese plurilateral and multilateral diplomacy," said Rudd.
"They know that the Biden Administration is weak on global free trade. They know that the Congress is deeply protectionist, not just traditionally the Democrats, but the Republicans because of the insidious influence of Trumpism in turning the Grand Old Party into the Grand Protectionist Party…
"What the Chinese are seeking to do tactically and politically and diplomatically is to say we are actually in the free trade game unlike those American blowhards and as a result we want to be seen in the global public policy, trade policy and political debate as on the continued side of globalisation and the multilateral trading order.
"The challenge for the Americans is to realise this is the real soft underbelly of American strategic policy. The Americans can have as big a reset in their policy towards the Indo-Pacific or Asia Pacific as they choose…
"But the weakness is that you cannot have a strategic policy, a foreign policy or a regional military policy on the part of the United States and somehow extract the trade and investment component from it and to have a credible, pan-regional geo-economic and geo-political presence.
"So this is frankly a challenge to the United States and its leadership to re-engage on trade."
He raised the question of whether China was serious about the application to join the CPTPP.
"The policy community in Beijing will be divided on this because they know that this is a high quality free trade agreement and therefore would go directly to core Chinese, as it were, practices in terms of domestic subsidy and state-based subsidy of many exports in the world.
"Therefore, this would require a radical change in Chinese industrial policy in order to fully accede to the terms of this Trans Pacific Partnership.
"Therefore I think what we should all do, including Australia, New Zealand and the rest of us, is maintain an open mind on China's actual credentials, that is China's predisposition to radically alter its own domestic subsidy arrangements.
"I'm sceptical as to whether the Chinese system would permit that, given that Chinese economic policy has moved in a leftward statist interventionist industrial policy direction under Xi Jinping.
"But I think we should… call China's bluff and say 'if you are serious about this, let's see what policies you would change to meet this high-quality standard represented by the TPP as opposed to the low standard represented the RCEP arrangement which we have all signed on to recently.'"
Rudd was also asked about the Aukus alliance, which led to Australia's abrupt cancellation of a conventional submarine contract with France in favour of a commitment to get the technology for nuclear-propelled submarines from the US or Britain.
He was highly critical of the process, saying France should have been informed properly as a global partner. And if a radical change in submarine design was required, it should have been re-tendered with France being able to take part as well as Britain and the United States.
He questioned whether the submarines could actually be built in Adelaide, as the French contract allowed, and whether it was possible to run a nuclear-propelled submarine fleet without a civil nuclear industry.
"These are the big questions and I begin to wonder whether these actually crossed the mind of Prime Minister Morrison and Defence Minister Dutton when they saw this as a great political wedge to use against the Australian Labor Party going into the next federal election.
"Apart from that, I don't have strong views."