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Interview

'Dangerous period' ahead for US and China, Australia's Rudd warns

Ex-PM fears Taiwan crisis between election and inauguration days in Washington

Former Australian Prime Minister and ASPI President Kevin Rudd: He sees an urgent need for the U.S. and China to "stabilize" their relationship when it comes to Taiwan.   © Reuters

SYDNEY -- Australia's former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is sounding the alarm about U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan, warning a full-blown crisis is an all too real possibility -- especially during a potentially rocky period following Tuesday's American presidential election.

Friction between the two superpowers continued to escalate this week after the U.S. approved a $2.37 billion missile sale to Taiwan. Rudd, in an interview with Nikkei Asia, said he is hopeful that "calmer heads will prevail" but remains wary of Washington's and Beijing's tit-for-tat moves.

"The next dangerous period is this: if [Donald] Trump loses the election and the administration decides to send various senior cabinet level officials to Taiwan, or contemplates a range of other actions which violate the One China policy," Rudd said. "I am concerned that we could still end up with a crisis over Taiwan between election day and inauguration day."

Rudd, now president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, offered his prescriptions for de-escalation.

"My overall recommendations to both countries is [to] stabilize the relationship over Taiwan as rapidly as possible. In the case of Beijing ... it is [ending] the provocative military exercises. In the case of Washington, it is the incremental undermining of the One China policy by senior administration visits to Taipei, which runs the risk of being the straw which breaks the camel's back," he said.

China, he added, "deeply fears that a combination of future U.S economic sanctions or interruptions of trade will make it economically vulnerable" -- a worry reflected in the new five-year economic plan the Chinese Communist Party announced on Thursday, which emphasizes greater self-reliance.

Taiwanese F-16 fighter jets fly in formation during a ceremony in August.   © Reuters

Rudd does not expect a possible Joe Biden presidency to ease that anxiety.

"If Biden is elected, China is under no illusions that the Democrats and Republicans have basically run a bipartisan strategy for the last two years," Rudd said. "So, China is very mindful that overall sentiment toward China in the United States has changed fundamentally."

He thinks Biden would deploy a "systematic" and "hard-line" approach to China, though he does see "some opportunities for collaboration" in areas such as climate change.

More broadly, Rudd says Asia is likely to be more receptive to a Biden administration, which he thinks would promote greater "economic engagement across Southeast Asia" and create "a more nuanced environment in terms of foreign diplomacy."

But Rudd, who led Australia from 2007 to 2010 and again in 2013, was critical of his own country's commitment to the region and its apparent overreliance on U.S. ties.

"My concern has been the Australian government has done two things. It has thrown all of its eggs in the American basket and very few of its eggs in terms of a proactive diplomatic strategy in its own name across the rest of East Asia and the Southwest Pacific."

Australia's federal government is reportedly planning to send hundreds of millions of dollars in developmental assistance to Southeast Asia to counter Beijing's influence in the region, but Rudd said this might be "too little too late."

"Australia's economic footprint in the region is small, very small, relative to China's," he said.

Australia's flag flies outside the Great Hall of the People in 2016: Relations between the countries have deteriorated rapidly.   © Reuters

He also noted that funding in the Southwest Pacific had been "virtually cut in half" since he left office in 2013, and that aid in the region has now only "just caught up in real terms." The decision to slash assistance, he said, "created a massive strategic vacuum for Beijing."

Australia's bilateral ties with Beijing are often described as being at their worst point in nearly 50 years, dragged down by concerns over alleged Chinese interference in Australian politics and growing trade friction. Nevertheless, Rudd was adamant the "roller-coaster" relationship can be repaired, and that it is possible for Australia to rely on China economically while maintaining its own values.

"These things are doable, we managed to do it in the past," he said. "It's called a balanced relationship, which doesn't apologize on our position on human rights, which doesn't apologize for our relationship with the U.S. alliance, maximizes our economic engagement [and] global collaboration with China at the G-20 on things like climate, but at the same time builds relations with countries around the world and in the region who also have to execute a similarly difficult balancing act with Beijing."

Australia is not going it alone, or as Rudd put it, is "not Robinson Crusoe," referring to the titular character of the 1719 marooned-on-an-island novel. "Other democracies elsewhere in the world seem to manage this balance reasonably effectively. The Australian government seems to think Australia's circumstances are somehow unique in the region. They're not."

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