Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has warned Australia faces its “most dangerous moment” in the modern era as China and the US face-off.
Writing in Foreign Affairs this week, Mr Rudd said Australia risks being caught in the middle of an ugly fight as US and China relations rapidly decline in a “primal” tit-for-tat.
“The saber rattling from both Beijing and Washington has become strident, uncompromising, and seemingly unending,” Mr Rudd wrote.
“The speed and intensity of it all has desensitised even seasoned observers to the scale and significance of change in the high politics of the US-Chinese relationship.”
China has become more assertive in its claims and its state-led media is quick to shriek in denouncement of foreign governments that question its actions, while the White House seems intent in picking a fight with the Chinese Communist Party in what could be the final few months of President Trump’s leadership.
“The question now being asked, quietly but nervously, in capitals around the world is, where will this end?
“The once unthinkable outcome—actual armed conflict between the United States and China—now appears possible for the first time since the end of the Korean War. In other words, we are confronting the prospect of not just a new Cold War, but a hot one as well,” Mr Rudd wrote.
If there is a conflict, it will likely revolve around contested territories in the South China Sea where the US, Australia and allies continue to conduct military shows of force as China tries to elbow out territorial claims of other countries.
While Australian ships don’t travel within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands contested by China, Defence Minister Marise Payne refused to rule it out following a visit to the White House last month.
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia in late July, former Secretary of the Australian Department of Defence, Paul Barratt AO, voiced concern about Australia joining US-led military exercises in the region.
“What’s going on now is that Trump is deliberately raising the temperature in the bilateral relations between the US and China,” he said.
“I just don’t think we should be party to anything that looks like containment of China, and looks like a diplomatic pile on.”
There are other potential trigger points, says Mr Rudd, whose recent PhD studies at Oxford University focused on Chinese president Xi Jinping.
“The list of friction points is long, from cyber-espionage and the weaponisation of the dollar to Hong Kong and the South China Sea,” he wrote, while China’s ambition to reclaim control over Taiwan looms in the near future.
“The channels for high-level political and military dialogue have atrophied when they are needed most. And both presidents face internal political pressures that could tempt them to pull the nationalist lever.”
For years leaders have warned of the so-called Thucydides's Trap, suggesting war is likely when a new country rises to challenge an established and dominant superpower in the international system.
If that comes to pass, “the next three months could all too easily torpedo the prospects of international peace and stability for the next 30 years,” the former PM warned.
Morrison warns China on ‘coercion of international systems’
Mr Rudd’s warning came as the current Australian PM delivered a speech Wednesday calling on China to take responsibility for its new position in the world.
Scott Morrison has urged the United States and China to respect international laws and resolve their disputes peacefully, saying both countries had a "special responsibility" to uphold the rules underpinning society.
"It means a commitment to rules-based economic interaction. Neither coercion nor abdication from international systems is the way forward," he said.
In a major speech to the Aspen Security Forum, Mr Morrison welcomed China's rise but said the country had a role to play "commensurate with its new status".
He said the rising power needed to take responsibility for enhancing the broader global and regional interest, "rather than a narrow national interest or aspiration".
Morrison: China needs to accept responsibility
Mr Morrison said while the US had always faced these expectations, China needed to accept the same level of responsibility and both countries must play their part.
The prime minister warned the liberal rules and norms of the "American century" were under assault and international society was under strain.
But rather than longing for the past, he said countries needed to accept the configuration of power in global politics had changed.
"We have to deal with the world as it is, not one we'd like it to be," Mr Morrison said.
He said Australia wanted to see international engagement framed by agreed rules and norms, "not crude economic or political coercion".
The PM said Australia was working with regional allies including Indonesia, India, Japan and Vietnam to ward off growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific.
"Tensions over territorial claims are growing. The pace of regional military modernisation is unprecedented. Democratic nations face new threats from foreign interference," Mr Morrison said.
"Cyber attacks are increasing in frequency and sophistication. Disinformation is being used to manipulate free societies.
"The trade rules that have allowed us to prosper have not evolved to meet new challenges. And economic coercion is increasingly employed as a tool of statecraft."
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