The Australian government nominated a prominent China expert to be its ambassador to the United States as Foreign Minister Penny Wong staged an ice-breaking visit to Beijing.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who currently heads the Asia Society, an Asia-focused international think tank, is expected to take office in Washington D.C. in March, Rudd said in a statement.
Rudd served as Australia’s foreign minister from 2010-2012 and is known as a scholar on China, holding an undergraduate degree in China studies and a doctorate on the Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping.
John Blaxland, professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Australian National University (ANU), said Rudd’s nomination is an “excellent choice.”
“Rudd is a former diplomat who understands Asia, is extremely well networked across the Indo-Pacific, has lived in the U.S. as head of the Asia Society for several years and so is very well in tune with U.S. politics and personalities,” Blaxland told RFA.
The U.S. Ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, said Rudd’s nomination “will further strengthen the U.S.-Australia alliance.”
Rudd is beginning his ambassadorship amid heightened U.S.-China rivalry and increased tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.
The relationship between Beijing and Canberra, a key Washington ally, has also “encountered difficulties and setbacks,” according to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a recent speech.
Australia, together with the United Kingdom and the United States, formed a trilateral security pact in 2021 that is commonly known as AUKUS. China has repeatedly criticized the alliance, calling it an attempt to establish an “Asian NATO.”
First visit in three years
On Wednesday Wang met with his Australian counterpart Penny Wong, the first Australian minister to visit Beijing in more than three years. The visit took place on the 50th anniversary of China-Australia diplomatic ties.
Speaking after the meeting with Wang Yi, Wong said that the two countries had made an “important step towards a stable relationship.”
The two ministers discussed consular matters, trade blockages, human rights and global rules and norms, with Wong urging the Chinese side to lift trade sanctions on Australian goods worth AU$20 billion ((U.S.$13.3 billion), as well as raising the case of two Australians detained in China – journalist Cheng Lei and writer Yang Hengjun.
China is Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, accounting for nearly one third of Australia’s international trade. Two-way trade with China totaled AU$245 billion (U.S.$163 billion) in 2020, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Australia signed a free trade agreement called the Comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with ten other countries in the region in 2018 but China is not a part.
Wong said she did not rule out Beijing’s participation but said “any economy that seeks to join the CPTPP would need to ensure that all parties to the agreement are confident that they could meet its very high standards.”
During her two-day visit, the two sides held a Diplomatic and Strategic Dialogue to “bring the bilateral relations back on track,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“It’s positive that diplomacy is opening up again,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank in Canberra.
The analyst however warned that there remain some “key issues of dispute” including human rights, trade obstacles and “China’s strategic ambitions” in the Indo-Pacific.
“We cannot ignore the growing risks that strategic competition between China and the United States will intensify and the threat of conflict over Taiwan or in the South China Sea will grow as China’s rapid military buildup continues,” said Davis.