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Relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated in recent months over the Covid-19 pandemic, trade, Hong Kong and China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. The shock conflict warning was made by Kevin Rudd, who served as Prime Minister of Australia between 2007 and 2010.
Mr Rudd was speaking at a La Trobe University Melbourne event titled “The China Challenge: Can a New Cold War be Avoided?”
Due to coronavirus the series of discussions was held virtually.
Mr Rudd warned of “conflict through miscalculation and escalation” before American’s go to the polls on November 3.
He explained: “There’s a real danger that with a collapsing diplomatic relationship and an erosion of all forms of political capital between the two countries in their bilateral relationship.
“If you have an incident of a ship colliding with another ship, an aircraft colliding with another aircraft…then you have a crisis with an aircraft down or a ship as to what then happens.”
Tensions between the US and China are particularly acute in the South China Sea, the world’s busiest shipping lane.
Beijing’s territorial claim over the area overlaps with those of no fewer than six of its neighbours.
To strengthen its position China has been building military bases, including airstrips, on natural and artificial islands in the area.
The US, and other western powers, have been contesting Beijing’s sovereignty by sending warships to mount “freedom of navigation” patrols through the sea.
There have already been a number of tense standoffs between Chinese and American ships and there are concerns one of these could end up escalating.
Mr Rudd said the “nationalist impulses” in both Beijing and Washington make open conflict more likely.
He warned of a crisis “particularly in the several months leading up to the election when the politics of high nationalism are alive and well, both in Washington and Beijing”.
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Before entering politics Mr Rudd, who speaks Mandarin, served as a diplomat in China.
He also used his talk to warn Xi Jinping, who became China’s president in 2013, is likely to attempt to seize Taiwan within the decade.
Taiwan, formerly the Republic of China, is an island to which anti-communist forces retreated after defeat in the Chinese civil war.
It currently has a population of nearly 24 million people and has military ties to the US.
Mr Rudd said China was more likely to use a combination of economic blockade and cyberwarfare to get its way rather than open invasion.
He explained: “The Chinese under Xi Jinping believe that the forces of history are with them.
“They are ultimately dialectical materialists.”
Dialectic materialism is a term used by Marxists to claim their historical triumph is inevitable.
Australia and China fell out badly in April when Canberra called for an independent international inquiry to investigate the origins of COVID-19.
Shortly afterwards Beijing imposed severe new restrictions on Australian barley, beef and wine.
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