Former Prime Ministers in Conversation at La Trobe

Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd spoke on China during a recent live broadcast to a La Trobe University audience.

The past few years have seen a deterioration in the bilateral relationship between Australia and China as tensions rise between the two nations.

To discuss the issues and complexities, La Trobe University’s Ideas and Society Program and La Trobe Asia hosted a live broadcast with Australia’s former prime ministers Kevin Rudd, currently the president of the Asia Society in New York, and Malcolm Turnbull, who is responsible for Australia’s first cyber security strategy. The conversation was hosted by Dr Rebecca Strating, executive director of La Trobe Asia and an expert in international relations.

One of Mr Turnbull’s main points focussed on how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policies and actions show a combative attitude towards Australia and other nations such as the United States.

“Xi Jinping has changed. He has taken a much more assertive and aggressive approach,” says Turnbull. “The big change has come from China. I think from Australia's point of view you cannot win. It is like the shopping centre in Pretty Woman. You engage and start getting into one part of sucking up, and more sucking up, and then you have to remember that the only way to be respected is to stand your ground.”

Rudd concurs that the CCP’s foreign and international policies have increased intensity and that “Chinese domestic and economic policy is further to the left” away from the private sector with a growth in Chinese nationalists to preserve national values and interests.

“The Chinese in their regional policy are driven by the reunification with Taiwan,” says Rudd. “China and Taiwan are bringing two giants of the 21st century into moderate forms of collision. That is not just on security policy, but on foreign policy, international economic policy of trade, investment, technology and on human rights.”

Another point of agreement regards human rights violations in China which have been criticised by world leaders, such as the repression of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.

“We should not turn a blind eye to human rights abuses anywhere in the world. But we have to recognise the limits of our power,” says Turnbull. “All human rights violations are unsatisfactory. But we have to do what we can to recognise that there are limits to what we can do. We have to work with all countries.”

Both former prime ministers agree that the federal government should start acting to improve the weakened bilateral relationship with China and work towards reducing current tensions.

“Talk less, do more. It has been an operation and declaratory strategy for domestic and political interests,” says Rudd.

“One thing we should not do is give into this demand. That would be the worst thing to do,” says Turnbull. “Like the same talk that Aaron Burr gave to Alexander Hamilton: talk less; smile more.”

The broadcast received a large online audience, and was one of the most watched public events held  by La Trobe University.

“We have had well over 4000 registrations for the event, which makes it the most popular discussion the university has ever hosted,” says Professor John Dewar Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University.

Story by Rei Fortes.