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Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, left, meets then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at Parliament House in Canberra in 2010.

Mark Graham/The Associated Press

He came into office as an optimistic prime minister seeking friendship with China. Two years later, facing multiple conflicts with Beijing – including the imprisonment of citizens on questionable grounds and the cancellation of resource-company investment deals – he adopted a more confrontational and critical stance.

Kevin Rudd, who was Australia’s prime minister in 2007-10 and again in 2013, has little else in common with Justin Trudeau. When Mr. Rudd took office 14 years ago, he was an expert on China and a former diplomat there, fluent in Mandarin and familiar with its relatively reform-minded president, Hu Jintao.

But the “true friendship” he sought with Beijing had soured by 2009, and by 2013, he recognized the rise of the more authoritarian President Xi Jinping as a potential threat to orderly relations. This year, he’s watched in alarm as his country has tried haphazardly to confront Mr. Xi’s excesses and has suffered economically devastating trade repercussions from an enraged Chinese regime that has all but torn up their 2015 trade agreement.

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I got in touch with Mr. Rudd because he sees the election of a new president in Washington as a chance – far from a certain one, but a chance nonetheless – to bring the world’s major democracies together in a common voice to respond to Mr. Xi’s provocations and, ideally, push China in a less-damaging direction.

“The outcome we should be seeking is not confrontation with China,” Mr. Rudd told me in an interview from Australia, where he now runs the policy think tank Asia Society. “The outcome is a combination of red lines, no-holds-barred competition, and a series of vigorous areas of strategic collaboration in – I won’t say an uneasy peace, let’s call it an unusual peace.”

This is not a great moment to be talking about collaboration or peace with China. Joe Biden’s first days in office have been tested with a rise in Chinese military threats to Taiwan. He faces a protectionist mood in his Congress and from his voters. Conversely, the European Union has hurt chances of a carrot-and-stick approach to Beijing by inking a generous investment pact with China (which must be passed by the European Parliament).

But Mr. Rudd believes Mr. Biden will have to come around to a multilateral, alliance-of-democracies approach to China – perhaps along the lines of the British “D-10” approach (that is, the G7 democracies plus India, South Korea and Australia). That’s not because Mr. Biden is a magnanimous internationalist – he’s not – but because circumstances mean he will need democratic allies in order to make any progress in Asia.

“There is a certain reality which confronts the United States – which is, for the first time since 1945, it actually needs its allies,” Mr. Rudd said. “And that’s because they’re becoming economically similar: China will be the larger economy [than the U.S.] in GDP and market exchange rates by the end of this decade. So the U.S. is in need of aggregate critical mass in dealing with its strategic competitor.”

Former president Donald Trump’s haphazard Cold War approach to China failed because Beijing is no longer dependent on the United States; it has many other markets, and its key instruments are not military but economic. Mr. Rudd speaks instead of “strategic competition” in investment, trade and diplomacy.

The crisis faced by Mr. Trudeau, in which Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been held de facto hostage for more than two years, is a consequence of Mr. Trump’s divisiveness. Only a more allied approach will end it.

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“That certainly is something which our friends in Beijing will be watching with razor-sharp focus. Will Washington put its arm around its allies on these sorts of questions, or will its allies swing in the breeze?” Mr. Rudd said.

“My judgment is it will be the former. And if that’s the case, then diplomacy needs then to have its sway – in the case of Canada, to secure the earliest possible release of the two Michaels, given the obscene amount of time that they’ve been incarcerated.”

Despite huge differences over whether to play ball with China or impose sanctions because of its democratic and rights abuses, most Western democracies are united by a common set of problems that Mr. Biden could use to bring allies together, Mr. Rudd says.

“Virtually all American allies have problems with China over human rights. Virtually all American allies have problems with China over cyber. And virtually all American allies have a range of problems with China on trade policy questions of one form or another. … [The Biden team] has got the political smarts to work it, both domestically and with the allies. The critical variable will be: Will the allies play ball? But on balance, I would give it a reasonable chance.”

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