“We can negotiate a peaceful century with China”

By Syed Nazakat in Canberra

In his office in the parliament house on capital Hill in Canberra – one of the world’s quietest national capitals – Australian Prime Minister Kavin Rudd wants you to know that he feels India’s pain — to a point on the series of attacks on India students. Despite concerns about the negative impact of the student issues on his country standing and image in India, he said that his government has come down heavenly on the hate crime and is confident about his country’s long-term ties with the India. “The Australia-India relationship is the most important relationship for Australian diplomacy,” Australian Prime Minister Kavin Rudd told THE WEEK in an exclusive interview in his parliament office. “India is a rising power global power. It is Australia’s national interest that we get more comprehensively engaged with the India.”

Rudd who he is – a former diplomat, Mandarin-speaking specialist on China who was once posted to Beijing also makes clear that by forging warmer business ties with China, he’s not downgrading the alliance with the India. He insists, after all, that he does not see “any problem” with China growing military power in the regional. It is far from clear what, precisely, he means by “any problem,” but there’s little doubt that his own government assessment of the future is grim as the Australia’s defence white paper did not hide concerns over China’s military ambitions. The defence white paper entitled: “Defending Australia in the Asia-Pacific Century; Force 2030 is based around assumptions that China will become increasingly dominant in Australia’s region and that Australia cannot rely on the US. for protection. Australia – for the first time in history – is somewhere caught between its trade and strategic interests with China on the one hand its biggest trading partner and on the other, the US as its single most important strategic ally. 

For decades — ever since its defeat in World War I, in fact — Australia has struggled to define its role in the world. Though in many respects a political and economic power in its own right, it has remained reliant on the U.S. for its own security under ANZUS agreement. But as the strategic landscape of Asia is changing with the rise of China and of India dependence on the U.S Australians are debating if the US can no longer be a close relationship which of the other major powers in Asia does Australia feel to have strongest strategic affinities with – India or China? That is the crucial question Mr. Rudd is still unable to find answer or he doesn’t want to answer. He knows the advantages of having business with China but he is deeply suspicious of China’s rising military power. The US president Obama is scheduled to visit him in mid June and both leaders will discuss besides other things, China. On Indian front, the challenge for Kavin Rudd is not just to soothe India’s displeasure over Australia’s sluggish action to ensure security of Indian students, but to bridge the very serious gulf between Australia and India over his party’s reluctance to sell Uranium to India. As he sits down in his office for his first interview to an Indian publication, Kevin Rudd’s reactions are subtle. When a photographer started to take his picture, Mr. Rudd cleaned his table and placed official files upside down; and jokingly said:  “There are state secrets on the table.  Hope you don’t capture them in your lens”.

Excerpts from the interview

Q. You signed an important strategic agreement with India in 2009.  In your opinion, what is the most significant feature of your country’s relationship with India?

A. India is important relationship with Australia and you are an important news magazine. So I am more than happy to spend some time talking to our friends in India through your magazine. India is a rising power global power. For those reason it is Australia’s national interest that we get more comprehensively engaged with the Indian government. India has legitimate security interests in India Ocean, so does Australia. We both are democracies and we have common security interest. Therefore it makes sense to actually develop a common security dialogue between the two countries about these interests. Beyond the India Ocean, across wider Asia, we believe there is also an opportunity for Australia and India to work together. For example, we both are member of East Asian summit in the ASEAN plus six grouping. I think this will be increasingly important body in the future. And therefore, it is through body such as that we will have a security and strategic dialogue about the wider security interest of the region at large. That gives us further opportunity to engage with our friends in India. When we look at the 21th century let us not confine ourselves to the belief that somehow it is impossible to navigate this century peacefully. I believe we can navigate this century peacefully as a region.  We just require a whole lot of focus on security policy dialogue. India is important in that regard.

Q. As you said India and Australia share common democratic traditions; common interests as Indian Ocean littoral States but yet the bilateral relationships have not blossomed as it should have been in all these years. What do you think are the main reasons for this?

A. It is not for me to provide a retrospective critique on previous Indian governments or on Australian governments. I think what has changed fundamentally is the depth and dimensions of the economic engagement now. Our economic relationship is quite rapidly expending. I think another factor is India’s increasing regional and global interests. We are partners with India now at G-20, which is the premier body of global economic governance. This is a reason of change. We both are also members of ASEAN plus six, East Asian summit. Some of the external factors of the change which bring us together are that we both are democracies, we speak English and we have curious relationship with the UK, and we are peace loving people. From our point of view, India is a big multicultural society. What impressed me during my state visit to India [in Nov 2009] was obviously the nature of the sharing of political power in India. The prime minister, the president, and the leader of the main political party come from different ethical and religious background within the country.

Q. You consider India your strategic ally in the Asia Pacific region. Yet the first think you did when you came to office was that you scraped the nuclear deal with India. In principal, the previous Australian government had agreed to sell Uranium to India?

A. Well, on the question of sale of nuclear supplies to India what we have done have done is constant consultation with friends in India and with the rest of international community that is to change the posture of Nuclear Supplies Group (NSG) which was a very necessary change in order to support Indian civil nuclear industry. You may or may not be familiar with the traditional role of Australia at the NSG. It has been a strong role for many many decades and Australia has had a particular profile on non-proliferation matters over a period of time. So multilateral or globally, India’s access to nuclear supplies has been enhanced by Australia’s support to India’s interest through that forum. On the question of direct Uranium sales to India then of course for time being we agreed to disagree.

Q. When you came into the power you scrapped the nuclear deal with India and didn’t even allowed a debate within your own party or government about the issue. Do you regret your decision?

A. As a political party, we have a long standing position on Uranium. Our political party is 120 years old. As a political party for many many decades we had a position on non proliferation which hinges on the NPT itself. Certainly as a country we are fully respectful of India’s peaceful use of nuclear energy over many decades. We are also deeply respectful of India’s democratic tradition and deeply respectful of India’s restrain it has demonstrated in the light of range of complex security challenges in recent times. At the same time our position, a position of the Australian Labour party, has not changed on NPT question. As I said, we will have to a period ahead agree to disagree.

Q. You supported India at NSG and on the other hand you don’t want your country to have a nuclear deal with India. Is not your stand on the issue quite contradictory?

A. We didn’t wish to stand in the way of India’s nuclear relationship with other countries. But when it comes to our sovereign relationship with India then we have a particular position which has been long standing. We are mindful of the direction to which our own Australian sourced nuclear material goes. That is what we have sovereign responsibility as a nation. 

Q. Do you agree that the Uranium deal with India would have strengthened your country’s relationship with India?

A. My general view is that the India-Australia relationship is going strength to strength anyway. It is founded in common cultural engagement, the huge Indian population in Australia; they are respected and renowned contributors to our Australian multi-cultural society. We have the common bonding of democracy and we have the common security interest policy. On Uranium our policy is as they say in cricket, back to the bowler [and] no run.

Q. Some time ago you spoke about your proposal to create a new Asia-Pacific bloc, similar to the European Union. You talked about resolving all the territorial conflicts in the region including the Korean peninsula and Kashmir. Many in India were not able to understand your idea about Asia-Pacific bloc. Do you want to play an intervention kind of role to solve these conflicts?

A. My long standing strategic concern is not to allow the nation states of what will become most strategic and economically important continent in the 21 century to in any way to fall victim to strategic rift that is any unresolved territorial disputes are allowed in the future to escalate beyond control. Let us face some facts there are some unresolved territorial tension in Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Street, South China See and obviously [Kashmir] in sub-continent as well. The second thing is what I sought to propose is something coordination to Asia Pacific community, a body across Asia pacific region which is capable of sustaining an open dialogue of security policy matters.

Q. So you were not seeking a kind of interlocutor role?

A. No, I’m talking about common security dialogue across our region. This is not a suggestion that any individual outstanding conflict within the region’s territory should be arbitrated on a particularly external entity. That is not the suggestion. The suggestion is looking at our wider 21th century interests where we are dealing with common challenges like terrorism, common challenges of maritime control, illegal people movements, disaster management, soft security and even at times harder security questions. We need a culture which emerges from a cooperation and transparency, confidence and security building measures which at present by and large doesn’t exit. Europe in 1949 had no such institution either and previous two centuries are evidence what happened when you have no such institutions. Frankly as it evolves since the treaty of Rome until the present it has put to bed a very large number of historical security related tensions in the Europe. That was not the case prior 1945. Through to world war-II we had three hundred years of blood and conflict. When we are looking forward to next century for Asia let us learn some of that from history and develop some institutions which foster cooperation and transparent approach to security.

Q. Australia released defence white paper last year which talks about China’s rising military power. You are among a few world leaders, or perhaps the only one, who can speak to Chinese leadership in their own language? What is your assessment of China’s growing military power?

A. Rise of China like rise of India should be seen as the enormous regional and global opportunity for us all. The stronger voices of countries like China and India in global forms, on the economy, on trade, on climate change, as well as on the security policies matters as well. We have a very strong relationship with China. Our political party when we were in the government in 1972 established diplomatic relations, we had a good relationship since then. I think the [Australian] defence white paper speaks for itself. What we used to refer as the need for increased transparency. And certainly our bilateral engagement with China has emphasized that point as well.  The Asia Pacific community having greater transparency of the military capabilities, military exercises, and military deployments, even in counter disaster operations enhances the security. It doesn’t diminish the security. And I think the overall argument in faviour of greater transparency is also good when it comes to China.

Q. But is there transparency in China……..

A. Well, as I said before, the white paper speaks for itself. We are engaged with the Chinese since the defence white paper has come through on the need in our view to improve transparency. We will continue to engage the Chinese along those lines.

Q. Are you concerned about the China’s rising military power? Many Australian defence and strategic experts fear about China rising military power. Their assessment is that by next two decades it will be a big source of tension in the region?

A.  I would not commit beyond what the defence white paper has said other then to say that China is capable of being engaged on wider security policy. We are doing that and I encourage all countries to do the same. That we why we need a mechanism in fact to do that. I am confident that we can negotiate a peaceful century with China. China has no interest in a military conflict which is any way undermine its long term economic development. We must also do whatever we can to increase transparency in terms of China’s military capabilities and operations.

Q. There has been wide spread anger and anguish in India over the serial of violent attacks on Indian students in Australia. For the two complete years things have been happening and your government did nothing to ensure safety of Indian students.

A. Well, I don’t think that it is accurate. The authorities have been attending to their responsibilities for all students, for all different countries around the world. We take the life and well-being of any foreign student in this country [irrespective] of where they come from seriously. Secondly, in response to real concerns raised by Indian students, the police authorities and the universities authorities have adopted a whole serious of new measures and I am hopeful that these measures will be more effective in the future. One of the things which we must always bear in mind is the safety and security of people in large cities, anywhere in the world, in large cities there are acts of violence and I am sure that occurs in India as well. We looked at the data recently and we have number of Australian murdered [in India] in the last decade or so.  My point is in large cities violence does occur and this is regrettable. Any death of Indian student or of any foreign student is a one death to many. Any injury to any Indian student, or any foreign student, is an injury to many. I am deeply hurt by the attacks on Indian students.

Q. The parents and relatives of students in India where horrified about the situation.  They were not expected this thing will happen in Australia. 

A. It is important to keep this in quantitative dimensions as far as the number of incidents which have occurred relative to acts of violence in large cities anywhere in the world.  If you look at the data that will put this in a context.

Q. But here in you country, Indians were singled out. According to your own government figures in between 2007 to 2008 over one thousand Indian students were attacked and in Sydney alone. Do you feel like saying sorry to Indian parents?

A. Any death of any Indian or foreign student in Australia is one death to many just as a death of an Australian tourist in India for time to time as well. We all got to ensure that to improve measures provisions of law and order, security in our communities. We value the contribution of Indian students. We value the contribution of Indians who have been part of Australian society now for more than 100 years and they are such a rich contributor to our nation.

Q. To give our readers a better idea of you as a person, what do you like and value most of all, and what do you do apart from politics?

A. I like to swim, read and also like to listen music. I’m currently reading a biography of [Jawaharlal] Nehru which was sent to me by your [Indian] environment minister. It is written by an Australian author some twenty years ago. It is a quite an interesting reading. There is also another book, which I was sent, I think, by your president, a biography of [Mahatma] Gandhi. I have not read much of Gandhi since I was in university. 

Q. And I heard you love Indian food?

A. Oh, very much so. My favorite restaurant in my town in Brisbane is an Indian restaurant called Shahrzad, which has fantastic Indian food. We would have Indian take away atleast once a week, even in my current leadership. As I say to my friends in Delhi imagine if Australia have remained exclusively anglo-saxson culture. Imagine to be sentenced to 200 years of English food. Our friends in India liberated us from bad food just as our friends in China liberated us from bad food. It is an enormous contribution to Australian life.  

(July, 2010, THE WEEK)


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