Kevin Rudd and Australia-China Relations

Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister of Australia from December 2007 to June 2010 and again from June to September 2013. Rudd is a fluent Chinese speaker who graduated from The Australian National University with majors in Chinese language and Chinese history. Before entering parliament in October 1998, he served as a bureaucrat, including a period as First Secretary (Political Section) of the Australian Embassy in Beijing from 1984 to 1986.

Following his elevation to leader of the opposition in December 2006, Rudd’s knowledge of China began to attract media attention in Australia, China and around the world. He proposed major Australia-China climate change [topic link page] cooperation, declared Asia-literacy [topic link page: China literacy] a ‘national priority’ and, in September 2007, ‘upstaged’ then prime minister John Howard at the Sydney APEC summit by addressing Chinese President Hu Jintao in Chinese. Rudd’s election as prime minister in November 2007 created high hopes for closer Australia–China ties, and the Chinese press fêted him as the first Chinese-speaking leader in the West.

Rudd scheduled a four-day visit to China in April 2008 as part of his first major overseas trip as prime minister. There, in perhaps his best-known foreign policy address, given in Chinese, Rudd urged China to build a ‘harmonious world’ by becoming a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the global order. While he rejected calls for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics because of problems in Tibet, arguing ‘the Olympics are important for China’s continuing engagement with the world’, Rudd still noted that ‘it is necessary to recognise there are significant human rights problems in Tibet.’

Rudd’s public statement, in China, of political and human rights differences [topic page link] was a notable break with the China policy of the Howard government that concentrated on economic commonalities. Rudd concluded the speech by proposing a new kind of relationship between Australia and China, that of a zhengyou 诤友: ‘A true friend … a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship … a true friendship which offers unflinching advice and counsels restraint to engage in principled dialogue about matters of contention.’

Hailed as a masterstroke by some observers and praised in the Chinese press, Rudd’s suggestion of a ‘third way’ in China relations ‘between conflict and kowtow’ was met with doubt in Australia. This speech is still today referred to by Rudd’s critics to portray his ‘mishandling’ of the China relationship, symptomatic of a desire to ‘go around and lecture people’ because of his ‘over-ambitious’ ‘grand visions’ for Australian foreign policy towards China and the wider region. Rudd expanded on the zhengyou idea and on what Geremie Barmé calls New Sinology in his April 2010 Morrison Lecture at The Australian National University, during which he launched the Australian Centre on China in the World.

Rudd was prime minister during the following year, 2009, called an ‘annus horribilis’ in the Australia–China relationship, and probably the lowest point in mutual sentiment and trust between Australia and China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident or the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996. A series of incidents led to a virtual freeze in bilateral relations between the two governments: China reacted angrily when Rudd’s Defence White Paper [topic page link] suggested Chinese military modernisation was ‘cause for concern’; Australian Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu [topic page link: Australian in the Chinese justice system] was arrested in Shanghai on bribery and espionage charges after Rio Tinto backed out of a controversial US$19.5 billion deal with Chinese state-owned enterprise Chinalco [topic page link: Stern Hu, Rio Tinto & China]; Australia granted a visa to Uyghur World Congress president Rebiya Kadeer [topic page link] after Chinese diplomats tried to have a documentary about her removed from the Melbourne International Film Festival; and, not a single round of negotiations on the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement [topic page link] took place. ‘Kevin Rudd The China Expert’ came under immense criticism in the press and in parliament for his ‘dysfunctional diplomacy’. Eventually, in October 2009, then vice-premier Li Keqiang was despatched to Australia to negotiate an unusual ‘Australia–China Joint Statement’ affirming mutual commitment to improving ties.

Following his removal as prime minister in June 2010, Rudd served as minister for foreign affairs from September 2010 to February 2012. During this time, he was an advocate for an expanded and diversified Australia–China economic relationship and vigorously defended the Gillard government’s decision to allow US marines to rotate through Darwin as part of US President Barack Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ [topic link page].

Rudd’s personal connection with China was often in the media spotlight, such as his friendship with Chinese businessman and Australian Labor Party (ALP) donor Ian Tang and support for China’s greater role in international affairs. Political opponents and pundits attacked Rudd as a ‘Manchurian candidate’, a ‘panda hugger’ and a ‘roving ambassador for the People’s Republic’. Media commentators alleged that ‘fear in the prime minister’s office that his relationship with Beijing could turn into a liability’ prompted Rudd to keep visits to Australia by Chinese officials secret and request the BBC to not sit him next to then Chinese Ambassador Fu Ying 傅莹 during a UK television interview.

But ‘pro-China’ perceptions might have been at odds with the China message Rudd was conveying to Australian allies. WikiLeaks revealed in December 2010 that, in a private meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rudd had described himself as a ‘brutal realist on China’ and recommended Clinton prepare ‘to deploy force if everything goes wrong’ with China’s rise. Rudd also said similar thinking was behind his (abandoned) plan for an ‘Asia-Pacific Community’ that would tie Chinese foreign policy to a rules-based institution that included the US. This followed revelations Rudd branded the Chinese delegation to the 2009 Copenhagen Conference as ‘fuckers … trying to ratfuck us’. By the end of his tenure as foreign minister, several China-watchers and Chinese academics claimed that Rudd had a ‘largely negative impact’ upon and ‘cast a shadow’ over bilateral relations due to his ‘harsh criticism’.

After losing a leadership challenge and withdrawing to the government backbenches in February 2012, Rudd produced a series of foreign policy speeches and articles that argued for a recalibration of the Asian regional order to reflect the rise of China: a balanced ‘Pax Pacifica’ based on ‘common interests regarding the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region’, an accord ‘which is neither a new Pax Americana … nor a Pax Sinica’.

Regaining the prime ministership in June 2013, Rudd proclaimed the ‘China resources boom is over’ [topic page link: economic relations] and personally reprioritised negotiations for a comprehensive Australia–China FTA with new Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as endorsing Gillard’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper [topic page link].

Following his defeat by Tony Abbott [topic page link] at the September 2013 election, Rudd accepted a position as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government to head a major research study on US–China strategic relations. Rudd’s report, U.S.-China 21, The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping: Toward a New Framework of Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose, was released in April 2015. In early 2015, Rudd became the inaugural President of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.


April 2007

August 2007

September 2007

December 2007

February 2008

March 2008

April 2008

June 2008

August 2008

September 2008

November 2008

February 2009

March 2009

April 2009

May 2009

July 2009

August 2009

October 2009

November 2009

December 2009

January 2010

April 2010

May 2010

June 2010

July 2010

August 2010

September 2010

November 2010

December 2010

January 2011

March 2011

April 2011

May 2011

June 2011

July 2011

November 2011

January 2012

February 2012

March 2012

April 2012

June 2012

July 2012

August 2012

October 2012

November 2012

December 2012

January 2013

April 2013

June 2013

July 2013

August 2013

September 2013

November 2013

December 2013

January 2014

February 2014

April 2014

June 2014

October 2014

February 2015

March 2015

April 2015

May 2015

June 2015