Interview

Beijing maybe ready for a resolution of the border with India: Kevin Rudd

China is changing its language towards the DalaiLama, says Kevin Michael Rudd, former AustralianPrime Minister. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty   | Photo Credit: Shanker Chakravarty

As Australian Prime Minister from 2007-2010 and briefly in 2013, Kevin Rudd was credited with putting Australia-China relations on the fast track. He was also accused of being too “Sino-Centric”. He is now visiting India as the President of Asia Society Policy Institute, and says he sees himself as a problem solver, with a particular interest in India-China relations. In an exclusive interview to Diplomatic Editor Suhasini Haidar, Mr. Rudd talks about how China views growing India-US closeness, and also says China wants to solve its border dispute with India.

PM Modi heads to China in May this year, and we have seen reactions in Beijing to the India-US joint vision statement announced during President Obama’s Delhi visit. How do you see China looking at the India-US relationship right now?

Kevin Rudd: China sees India through three different lenses. One over the ongoing border disagreement over the border in Tibet, that continues. The second is through the lens of economic opportunity, and I do believe that China for its own economic growth reasons, wants to see India flourish. Thirdly they see it through a foreign policy and national security lens, looking more broadly at its relationship with the United States. The Chinese have had a renormalisation of their relationship with the US starting with the Climate Change agreement in November 2014. Therefore I’m not sure that our friends in China would be opposed to a further normalisation of India’s relationship with the US, but they will always be wary given their doctrine of anything which indicates a closer defence relationship.

Given that China is wary, how does it see the Joint-Vision statement?

It’s a very strong statement, and it was unexpected and unanticipated. So I think the Chinese will watch very carefully what happens between declaration and reality. I think we are now seeing the need for a new strategic architecture in Asia which helps us over time have mechanisms for regional tensions, building forums like the East Asia Summit as a buffer or shock absorber for new problems like the East Asian Summit and ASEAN.

Well Australia promoted the idea of a quadrilateral with India-US-Japan-Australia once...how do you feel China reacts to that?

I think its important to be cautious about creating a sense that the rest of the region is ganging up on Beijing. Its very easy to stoke the containment narrative in Beijing, I travel there and speak to their think tanks all the time. Nation states will act in their direct national security interests, but at the same time it is important for there to be cooperative mechanisms which encourage security dialogue. For me its stunning that China and Japan had no military hotline between them. One of the outcomes of the conflict in 2013-14 was that they agreed to establish one. I believe all the major powers of the region should have hotlines, not work just through their embassies, because when there is a crisis, you need to speak in a matter of seconds and minutes not days. As a former diplomat the time lag worries me immensely.

Australia has dealt with the US-China balance by allying with the US strategically, and China economically, what is your advice to India on keeping a balance in those ties?

I don’t intend to give any public advice to another country. PM Modi is an intelligent man with considerable experience of China. His visits to China as CM of Gujarat are well known, he has many friends there. If I can make one statement as a former PM of Australia, it is possible to “walk and chew gum at the same time”. You can have a deep engagement with the Chinese on the economy, and you can be strategically engaged with others, without any contradiction.

Do you see a shift in Chinese policy towards India, particularly given the historic nature of the conflict in Tibet?

Tibet is part of core Chinese interest to maintain the cohesion of the country. No one should ever estimate China’s immovable interest. The three focuses of that would be Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. Historically, the hierarchy of those concerns would be Tibet number 1, Xinjiang next and Taiwan number 3. Currently it would put Xinjiang at the top and Tibet number 3. There is a degree of improvement on political and security circumstances in Tibet. Also, Chinese language towards the Dalai Lama is changing, and we cant rule out the possibility of some sort of political accommodation with the Dalai Lama. No timetable, but I do detect a change in tonality from China. And it is important from New Delhi’s perspective that Tibet, Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama, represent a significant constituent element of the long unresolved border questions between India and China. It may just be possible that political and diplomatic space could be created from this changed attitude from Beijing for a resolution of the border. I’m simply a third party observer, not encouraging any action by either side, but Xi Jinping is a very strong leader, PM Modi is a very strong leader, if there is a reduction in tensions concerning Tibet and the Dalai, it is not beyond feasibility that these things could be considered.

The two leaders have spoken about demarcating the border, appointed SRs, but the dispute is decades old. Do you see the possibility of a solution?

I think from China’s perspective, notwithstanding the border skirmishes in the past few months, it would probably like to see a resolution of its land borders. China has 14 land borders, the largest of any in the world except Russia that has the same. History has taught China the value of secure land borders. The resolution of the Sino-Russian border in 1989 between Gorbachev and Deng Xioping has created the strategic conditions for a total change in relations 25 years later. I maybe wrong, but I think there maybe a move in Beijing to use historical opportunities when they present themselves to resolve outstanding land borders. Many in Delhi may disagree, and think China may want to use the border to exert leverage between the two countries, but I don’t think China views it that way. It has insecure unresolved maritime borders with all its neighbours on one side, and so secure land border are very important. Of course it is not for me to decide where India’s national interests lie, and they must decide how to go forward with China.

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