Sydney Morning Herald

By Catherine Armitage

IT'S the most complex relationship in the history of the world. Geoffrey Garrett might have been talking about his fellow panel members, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's ''two aspiring prime ministers'', as an audience member described them. But it was a panel on US-China relations so Professor Garrett, the dean of the business school, who is also the founding CEO of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, was talking about the US and Chinese economies.

With Mr Rudd stranded by a sandstorm in Dubai, Mr Turnbull could scarcely keep the smile from his face. When expressing sympathy over Mr Rudd's inability to appear in person at the Fairfax Media-sponsored forum, his tongue was planted firmly in his cheek.

Mr Rudd might have stuck his out, grinning archly that his appearance via video link was a pretty good advertisement for the potential benefits of the national broadband network.

Such joshing rivalry aside, Australia's two most popular politicians appeared in cordial agreement at the forum marking the once-in-two decades coincidence of China's leadership transition and the US presidential election. Stability will prevail in the US-China relationship, and hence our region and the world. ''I agree with Kevin,'' Mr Turnbull said more than once. Though not completely, of course.

The opposition spokesman for communications and broadband thought talk about this being ''a time of great change'' was a tad overdone. The big theme is continuity, he said. China's new leaders, Xi Jinping and Le Keqiang, were anointed long ago, and ''this is really evolution in terms of personality of a very consensus-driven government'', Mr Turnbull said. Both countries have ''an immense vested interest in peaceful relations and continuing economic co-operation and trade''.

Well, yes, concurred Rudd, but consider this. When China's economy becomes the biggest in the world, in all probability in the next decade, it will be the first time a non-English-speaking, non-democratic nation has held that mantle since the time of George III (1738-1820).

''Therefore it is not just an ordinary time in history we are looking at. It's big and it's transformational,'' he said.

The Obama-Xi relationship in the next five years would be crucial to the question of whether the future order would be constructed on the basis of existing international values or new ones, Mr Rudd said. It was time for China and America to get together to build rules for a ''credible stable rules-based order in south-east Asia'', so when conflicts arise they don't just escalate. ''We have got to the stage where two principals need to know each other at a deep and personal level.''

For Australia, the story is not being at the pointy end of a dangerous and difficult politico-economic triangle but rather in an economic sweet spot with China and the US, Professor Garrett said, quoting panellist and Herald international editor Peter Hartcher.