Kevin Rudd has launched a personal attack on Peter Dutton, labelling the defence minister an “idiot” for believing hairy-chested commentary about China would improve Australia’s strategic circumstances.
The former Australian prime minister also took aim at Beijing, saying that if Chinese officials really wanted a reset in the relationship with Australia he “could not think of a dumber thing to do than what they just did in the Solomons”.
Rudd was referring to the fallout from the signing of the security deal between China and Solomon Islands, in a wide-ranging event moderated by the former Liberal foreign minister Julie Bishop in Canberra on Wednesday night.
The former Labor prime minister was particularly scathing about Dutton, who took over as defence minister in March last year and has increasingly ramped up public warnings about the security threat posed by Beijing.
Dutton said last November it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not join with the US to defend Taiwan in a future war with China, and has repeatedly said the Chinese Communist party would want Labor to win next week’s election.
Rudd said whoever was the government of Australia at present “would have a challenge on their hands, because China has become increasingly assertive and that is because China’s become more powerful”.
He argued Australian leaders must pursue “an effective operational strategy for Australia, as opposed to too much volume in our declaratory strategy in dealing with China”.
“Often an assumption on the part of certain politicians like the idiot Dutton … that, the more you shout, and the more hair you stitch on to your chest of a morning, somehow the better your overall strategic circumstances with China and the United States might be,” he said at the Australian National University.
“That’s just declaratory bullshit. And it’s directed at an Australian domestic political audience.”
Rudd said it would be wrong to assume an effective strategy “equals pulling out the bullhorn, the megaphone every Monday morning, if it’s, you know, 9am blasting it off on the front pages of the Murdoch rag”.
Dutton has repeatedly defended his approach, arguing the government must “speak frankly about the challenges which confront our nation and our region” and not “ring-fence” Australians from difficult issues.
The defence minister said on Tuesday that China was “on a particular path” and operated “by very different rules”.
“The approach is aggressive and we have to be realistic about that,” Dutton told Sky News. “I just stick to the facts.”
Wednesday’s event at the ANU was to promote Rudd’s new book on China-US relations, titled The Avoidable War.
Rudd warned that China’s long-term strategy of increasing its influence in the Pacific would “not be limited to the Solomons” and whoever won the Australian election would face “a massive challenge” to restore Australia’s credibility in the region.
Rudd suggested that the signing of the security deal was at odds with Beijing’s publicly stated desire to overcome tensions in the relationship with Canberra.
“If the Chinese system was trying to send a signal to the Australian political system that, post election, whoever wins the election, Labor or Liberal, that they were interested in a reset in the bilateral relationship, I could not think of a dumber thing to do than what they just did in the Solomons,” Rudd said.
“This is a really foolish act, in terms of those within the Chinese system who may be looking for the opportunity for a circuit breaker, a reset.
“Whoever forms the next government of Australia, let me say this on a bipartisan basis, that [deal] actually alters the game yet again.”
Bishop, who was foreign minister from 2013 to 2018 and now is chancellor of the ANU, added that it would be important to see the detail in the final signed agreement between China and Solomon Islands.
“I know we’ve seen the draft, but my fear is that China absolutely dominated those negotiations,” Bishop said.
“And if we were able to view that agreement, which I understand hasn’t even been to Solomon Islands parliament, we would have a better understanding of China’s intentions, aspirations and likely behaviour in the Pacific.”
The ABC and the Australian have reported that China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, is expected to lead a delegation to Solomon Islands and other Pacific island countries this month, possibly before the federal election.
Dutton said such a visit would not come “as a surprise to anyone” but was “obviously provocative, particularly during the course of an election campaign”.
The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, told the National Press Club on Wednesday it was “quite obvious” that China was “starting a process of encircling Australia”.
New polling published on Thursday shows Australian voters are evenly divided on whether Labor (35%) or the Coalition (36%) would best manage Australia’s China policy.
The report, by the Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI) and the Centre for Business Intelligence & Data Analytics (BIDA) at UTS, also finds strong public support for increased defence spending.
Of 2,000 Australian adults polled across all states and territories from 18 to 30 March, nearly three-quarters (73%) said they saw China as “a security threat to Australia” – six points higher than the result on this question in the 2021 survey.
In the event of a military conflict between the United States and China over the status of Taiwan, 56% of respondents agreed “Australia should lend military support to the United States” – an 11-point increase on this question compared with last year – while 20% disagreed.
More broadly, however, six in 10 Australians (60%) believe Australia should continue to try to build strong connections and ties and have a strong relationship with China.
The polling report says presenting the Australia-China relationship through “a binary lens” does not match perceptions in the wider community. It says public opinion “remains in a state of flux”.