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Asia policy expert says China support to Russia could alter U.S.-China relations


We want to go back to President Biden's phone call with China's leader, Xi Jinping, yesterday. The two spoke for nearly 2 hours. The main topic - what Biden's press secretary called the absence of denunciation by China of what Russia is doing in Ukraine. After the call, the White House said President Biden gave President Xi a detailed description of the consequences for China if it were to provide material support to Russia as it continues its invasion of Ukraine. Administration officials declined to make public what Biden said those consequences would be. We wanted to consider where all this leaves the U.S.-China relationship. For that, we invited former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the program. He's currently president and CEO of the Asia Society. And he's also just written a book called "The Avoidable War: The Dangers Of A Catastrophic Conflict Between The U.S. And Xi Jinping's China."

Prime Minister, thanks so much for talking with us today.

KEVIN RUDD: Thank you, Michel, for having us on the program.

MARTIN: So let me just go back a few weeks. And I want to start with that arresting image from the Olympics. Right before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, he traveled to China for the Olympics. Many commented on Putin and Xi at the opening ceremony because Putin was the only major world leader to travel to China for that. How would you characterize the relationship between Putin and Xi? What unites them? And I'm speaking now about before the current crisis, because obviously then I want to talk about since then. So what how would you characterize the relationship between the two before the current situation?

RUDD: Well, this has been an unfolding and evolving bromance between the two going back over the last seven years or so, certainly since the Russian military invasion of Crimea in 2014. Xi Jinping came to office a year or so before that. And what guides his thinking is a deep Chinese national interest to have a benign neighbor in the Russian Federation, a stable border with the Russian Federation and also a strategic partnership with the Russian Federation so that China can turn to face its principal global and regional strategic adversary, and that's the United States. I think that's what really underpins the chemistry and the real politic of this relationship.

MARTIN: What's your view of China's position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine? We're getting conflicting reports about this. I mean, we hear on the one hand that Chinese companies are, in fact, respecting the sanctions. But there's, as I said, there's conflicting reports about that. What's your take on it? Do you think that Xi Jinping supports it?

RUDD: You know, the Chinese system is internally divided on this. Xi Jinping is the No. 1 in the Chinese political system. He is the decision-maker in chief. At the same time, his chief economic advisers are saying that he should avoid any form of financial or economic cost to China through running the risk of secondary financial sanctions being imposed by the United States and its allies against China itself if China was to be found to have violated U.S. sanctions. And then finally, out in the world at large, you have in the court of international opinion China on the one hand saying it's defender of the U.N. charter and the U.N. system, but on the other hand remaining silent, stone cold silent on the question of Russia's blatant violation of Article 2 of the charter, which is invading the sovereign territory of another state. So it's a divided picture in Beijing. But so far, Xi Jinping pushes in the direction of providing maximal support, diplomatic and physical, where he can get away with it, for Vladimir Putin.

MARTIN: So as we've seen in recent weeks, the U.S. has been trying to get China to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This has been at sort of the ministerial level. And, you know, the two leaders speaking directly is, you know, obviously, you know, taking it up another level, I mean, lobbying China to stay away from helping Moscow in any way, certainly not directly. Do you think U.S. diplomacy is having any effect on China's position?

RUDD: I think the administration has played this matter diplomatically with the Chinese effectively so far. The American objective has plainly been to make it plain to China's No. 1 leader that a breach of financial sanctions will invite further action by the United States, but this time against China itself. And secondly, any provision of military assistance to the Russians by the Chinese would result in large scale reassessment by Washington of the entirety of the U.S.-China relationship. I imagine that's the message that's been delivered.

RUDD: So before we let you go, your new book is called "The Avoidable War: The Dangers Of A Catastrophic Conflict Between The U.S. And Xi Jinping's China." And I couldn't decide if that title is hopeful or alarming. I mean, it seems that you believe a catastrophic conflict is possible between the U.S. and China. Would you say more about that? Why do you say that?

RUDD: Well, I'd describe myself as a hopeful realist. This is not a book about international handholding and Kumbaya. It accepts the realist circumstances in which we find ourselves, which is China wishes to become the dominant economy and political system and strategic power, not just in the Indo-Pacific, but globally over time as well. And the United States does not want that to occur. The second element of the equation is that there should be a full and open recognition that across the economy, trade, investment, technology, as well as human rights, democracy in the world of ideology and ideas, that there will be a no-holds-barred competition between the two systems. And finally, that we can still thirdly carve out a space consciously in the relationship to manage those areas of global cooperation between the U.S. and China, where it's in the national interests of both sides to do it, like on climate change. That's what I argue in the book. And I think it's possible to achieve both at the Washington end and the Beijing end, because I doubt ultimately whether either side wants to blow each other's brains out.

MARTIN: That was Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and president of the Asia Society. Mr. Rudd, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

RUDD: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.