Five years of care required on China: Rudd

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

That's the advice of former prime minister Kevin Rudd on how to handle an increasingly aggressive China in the Indo-Pacific.

Mr Rudd says a failure to adequately handle the diplomatic relationship between Canberra and Beijing within the next five years could lead to conflict by the end of the decade or in the 2030s.

Delivering ANU's 2022 JG Crawford Oration, Australia's 26th prime minister says China is on track to have its military ready to take Taiwan by force in the late 2020s or 2030s.

Mr Rudd called for the US and China to set out the rules of the road to avoid any collision over the democratically governed island.

"Whether we like it or not, we are already on a 27-year timeline between now and when (President) Xi has decreed Taiwan must return to Chinese sovereignty, peacefully or by force," he said.

"If we fail to navigate the next five years carefully, there is a grave risk ... we could well find ourselves on the cusp of armed conflict."

Mr Rudd welcomed the thawing of diplomatic relations after high-level ministerial meetings between Australia and China culminated with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese meeting President Xi Jinping.

It was the first time the leaders of the two nations had formally met in six years.

Mr Rudd says Australia needs to use its diplomatic capital to establish clear areas of competition with China in the short term, but be prepared for a future conflict.

But Canberra will also need to rely on its allies, including the US, to push back any action by China.

"There is often a tendency in this country to see the Australia-China relationship in isolation," Mr Rudd said.

"When we do need to part company with China, do so in partnership with friends and allies.

"It's always safer to hunt in packs."