Briefing | opinion

Trump and China's Xi Jinping have led their nations into a dark new era of strategic competition — and neither side knows where the lights are

China’s President Xi and US President Donald Trump. (Photo by Thomas Peter – Pool/Getty Images)
  • Australia’s former prime minister Kevin Rudd says the era of engagement did its best, but that the US and China are now strategic competitors likely headed for conflict.
  • It’s a totally new world and no one knows the rules.
  • China was delighted when Trump took shots at US-led global institutions, which allowed Beijing to make its own unilateral moves.
  • Both presidents are unlikely to take a step back when national pride is on the line.
  • Looking ahead, Western democracy needs to keep its eyes open.

The Mandarin-speaking former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd says the world needs to wake up to the reality that its two major superpowers – the US and China – have entered a new era of strategic competition and no one on either side knows what the rules are anymore.

Rudd, the 26th prime minister of Australia and the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, told Sinica the world has entered a new period of strategic competition between two global superpowers, and that the slide to conflict between the two is closer than it has ever been.

Gone are the days of rules based orders, Rudd says. The Trump administration has seen to that by turning its back on the core institutions the West set up during the critical post-war years.

“Our friends in Beijing have been delighted when Trump has taken the meat axe to the World Trade Organisation,” Rudd told Kaiser Kuo.

No longer constrained by adhering to multilateral institutions, China has been borrowing from the Trumpian playbook, testing controversial waters and standing on its own on issues it would never have touched several years ago.

“When the US withdrew from the Human Rights Council in Geneva, when the US indicated its impending withdrawal from the UN climate convention change and engaged in a rolling polemic against these institutions our friends in Beijing can’t believe their luck that the US has taken the meat axe to the world order it helped create,” Rudd says.

But the US in turn under President Trump, “love him or loathe him,” has caught the Chinese off-guard with a more direct approach to confronting some of the bilateral issues.

“President Trump has now arrested China’s attention – not just because of the trade war – but also, as evidenced by Vice President Pence’s speech on US-China relations, by a much more ‘frontal reaction’ to what? Let’s call it ‘the Chinese Alternative,'” Rudd said.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute earlier this month, Pence directly accused China of “meddling in America’s democracy” through a sophisticated and elaborately planned whole-of-government approach to interfere in US domestic politics.

In a no-holds-barred speech, Pence accused China of stealing American intellectual property, of trying to dominate 90% of the world’s most ­advanced industries, eroding US military positions, and driving the US out of the Western Pacific.

Pence surprised many observers by slamming China’s militarization of the contested areas in the South and East China Sea, its practice of what he described as “debt diplomacy” in developing countries, as well as its ongoing and relentless pursuit of isolating its “rogue province”, Taiwan.

Pence said China had betrayed US hopes that it would open up and liberalize. And that was that.

“In terms of the harshness of the language, I think, again, it will cause Beijing to sit up and take notice, and it will confirm in the minds of many that the impending unfolding period of US containment of China is now entrenched,” Rudd said.

Everyone agrees: That’s a dead policy walking

Or in other, less-Ruddesque language: the US has made its decision to confront and no longer condone Chinese assertiveness around the world.

Rudd, who first rose to power in 2007 on Australia’s China-driven trade tsunami and the memorable Kevin’07 campaign slogan said that, since December 2017, the decades-long US policy of strategic engagement, most recently vigorously championed by the former US president Barack Obama, has been well and truly “interred” and been replaced with a direct strategic competition – and no one has even blinked.

Stefan Postles/Getty ImagesKevin Rudd on the campaign trail in 2016.

“What I’ve noticed is that no one from the Democratic side has opposed it,” he said.

Not Democrats, not Congress, not large American corporations or think tanks or policy wonks or academics.

“By and large there hasn’t been much blowback against that direction and that caught Beijing’s attention.”

A tale of two presidents

In between throwing out the diplomatic dictionary and shaking up bilateral ties, Trump has repeatedly made a point of referring to China’s Xi Jinping as a “friend.”

And while they are far apart in many ways, these leaders share certain qualities. They see themselves in history, they see their countries as exceptional, they see themselves surrounded, and they see themselves as agents of change and they see their countries as direct competitors.

Both have invested enormous national pride in themselves and will have difficulty stepping back from conflict, if it means losing national face.

Xi is a meticulous planner, removing obstacles and enemies before they see him coming. Trump is a master of improvisation and misdirection, sometimes it feels like he doesn’t even see himself coming.

On Thursday, Trump announced on Twitter a “very good” conversation with Xi, suggesting friendly progress had been made across several of the issues the US has taken up, including the ongoing trade dispute and North Korean talks.

“Just had a long and very good conversation with President Xi Jinping of China. We talked about many subjects, with a heavy emphasis on Trade,” Trump wrote. “Those discussions are moving along nicely with meetings being scheduled at the G-20 in Argentina. Also had good discussion on North Korea!”

The positive, sparky tone brings into stark relief the escalating trade realities on the ground that have shaved billions off both economies and has been overshadowing a planned sit-down at the Group of 20 leaders summit in Argentina later in November.

A few hours after the president’s tweet, US prosecutors began executing a series of charges against Chinese nationals and a Chinese tech firm for allegedly stealing US corporate secrets.

The message, to anyone hopelessly trying to read the tea leaves, are either very complex and nuanced or perhaps this is just what the new diplomacy in an age where the rules have not yet been written, and there is an absence of any meaning at all.

A new world disorder

Rudd says that if 40 years of strategic engagement are done and dusted, so then are all the complex rules, protocols, habits, the cultures, the diplomatic intimations that have evolved and been taken on by participants, “through a process of osmosis.”

“2018’s a big year, the US has proclaimed that era is over,” Rudd said.

The common language of Sino-US diplomacy, spoken by luminaries from Zhou Enlai to Henry Kissinger has been thrown out.

“And in this new period of strategic competition what are the rules? And in the absence of rules are we now going to watch this relationship career in multiple directions? How is it going to run in the absence of automatic, as it were, assumptions about how far can you push the trade war? How far can you push economic relations?”

“How far can we now push incidents and near misses in the South China Sea … etcetera.”

In this period both for China and the US, is it now a free-for-all or are we now … on more of a gradual gliding path from competition to confrontation to conflict?”

Certainly, in the face of a passive West, brow-beaten by economic failures and political stalemates, the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism is being emboldened.

Concealing one’s strength and biding one’s time

And for the first time since Mao Zedong, many observers from within and without see China helmed by a virtuoso leader, who has ruthlessly and efficiently shored up power and removed many of its previous checks and balances, including two-term limitations on the office of the president.

Rudd became prime minister the year that Xi Jinping was anointed as Hu Jintao’s successor in Beijing, 2007.

Xi, he says – calling it political intuition – is a man with a sense of a historic mission and the party, sharing his accumulation of strength, is and will behave on the world stage with ever-increasing assertiveness.

“Given the power consolidation process of first term Xi Jinping has been achieved with comprehensive success – it hasn’t turned out well for those who opposed him – its fair to conclude … that Xi Jinping’s worldview and that of the party more broadly is synchronous.”

Rudd describes the historic turnaround in foreign policy under Xi as ditching China’s favourite fallback position first articulated under Deng Xiaoping: “conceal one’s strengths and bide one’s time” (韬光养晦 tao guang yang hua) to an approach that seizes the initiative when the opportunity arises: “rouse oneself and press on” (奋发有为 fen fa you wei), a strategy that has seen China more willing to act outside the global forums that the US is itself apparently dismantling.

“I think the one thing I probably got right about Xi Jinping was an estimation of his character and personality. That he would not be content with being primus inter pares (first among equals).”

Xi has a sense of historical mission, Rudd says. Something that might also be said of his US counterpart.

And history, China is starting to believe, is on its side.

“The Western condition generally at present – for which Trump is not particularly to blame – is in a bad state … China’s response to that over the last decade-plus has been a state of heightening encouragement … that their own authoritarian capitalist project can prevail not just at home, but also possibly as a model to emulate from abroad as well.”

So, actually, it’s pretty desperate days already

Rudd says for the liberal world order to survive, nations currently anesthetized by the comforts of free speech, a cracking press and the warm embrace of democratic norms are going to have to rouse themselves off the couch.

“I think the other member states of the international community, if they want the current rules-based order based on its established pillars to survive, they’re going to have to argue for it and argue strongly for it and argue with passion and commitment for it.

“Otherwise, it will disappear beneath the waves of an economically dominant China over the long term.”

“If nation-states around the world think an authoritarian capitalist model is better and people are passive to the international challenge to those norms … then the Chinese way may well prevail,” Rudd warned.

So, it’s time to wake up and smell the communism, Kevin?

“The sooner people are aware of that the better.”

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