As tensions ratchet up between the U.S. and China over trade and security issues, many major news organizations around the globe have given a platform to commentators trumpeting the arrival of a new “cold war” between the world’s two largest economic superpowers.
But former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — a China specialist — thinks that such analysis is overblown.
“Let us remember what a cold war was: A cold war was zero people-to-people contact, zero economic contact, proxy wars in 20 plus states around the world between the Soviet Union and the U.S., nuclear triggers posed in each other’s direction and a fundamental ideological dispute on the future of two systems for world dominance,” Rudd said in an interview with The Japan Times on Wednesday in Tokyo.
“Now we have a few resonances of one or two of those things. But last time I looked, there was 350,000 Chinese students in the United States, it is the biggest trading relationship in the world and there is no third-country proxy wars that I am seeing,” he added.
“So let’s be very careful about using the term ‘cold war’ loosely.”
Yet Rudd, who currently serves as the President of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, also emphasized that there are numerous challenges facing the U.S.-China relationship.
“Certainly we are looking at a new period … what I describe as structural strategic tension in the U.S.-China relationship that is not going to go away,” Rudd said. “It is, I think, a permanent condition.”
Rudd, who was briefly in Japan to attend a conference on geopolitics, said that the trade war was just one example of this new tension, with other points of contention not yet clear because Washington’s more aggressive line is still being digested in Beijing.
And as China confronts a new dynamic with Washington’s current leadership, Rudd thinks this may provide a diplomatic opening to improve relations with neighbors such as Japan.
“China is trying to reduce pressure on both its strategic flanks,” he said, “You see a de-escalation of Chinese of tensions both with Japan” and simultaneously with India.
One manifestation of this de-escalation is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing slated for next week, which would be the first trip to China by a Japanese leader in about seven years, for the primary purpose of holding formal talks with his counterpart Xi Jinping.
Rudd hailed the visit as an important development in Tokyo-Beijing relations, which have frayed in recent years due to issues such as the dispute over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyu.
“The Abe visit to Beijing will be important for obvious reasons. It’s a bookend for what we’ve seen unfold (over the past few years),” said Rudd.
The former prime minister cautioned that finding the right diplomatic balance with Beijing will remain a tricky task, especially as the U.S.-China relationship is in flux, adding that he thinks Abe is minded to take a balanced strategy toward Beijing that “maximizes economic advantage, while at the same time robustly defending, as we have in Australia, long standing security alliances with the United States.”
“The danger in both capitals, in all capitals, frankly, is for us to lurch from love China to hate China.”