Is War Between the U.S. and China Avoidable?

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BOOK REVIEW: The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China

By Kevin Rudd / PublicAffairs

Reviewed by Jean-Thomas Nicole

The Reviewer — Jean-Thomas Nicole is a Senior Policy Analyst at the National Search and Rescue Secretariat, Public Safety Canada.

REVIEW – As the latest Taiwan Strait crisis was winding down, I started reading The Avoidable War by Kevin Rudd. It expertly tackles the complex and timely issue of the unfolding crisis in the relationship between China and the United States since, according to Chinese and American strategists alike, the 2020s loom apparently as a decisive decade in the overall dynamics of the changing balance of power between them. To navigate this uncertain future, Mr. Rudd therefore argues the case for a carefully managed strategic competition between the two giants, which is to say, “find[ing] a way to coexist without betraying their core interests”.

Consequently, if we follow this line of thinking:

“The purpose of this book is to pro­vide a joint road map to help these two great nations navigate a common pathway to the future […] through a comprehensive realist framework anchored in the enduring principles of diplomatic nego­tiation, verification through intelligence, effective deterrence—and, most importantly, mutual respect”.

On the essential strategic rationale for the concept of managed strategic competition, he develops further in the epilogue:

“The best way forward may be relatively simple: a mutually agreed strategic framework for avoiding war while preserving a principled peace, and one that would need to be robust enough to provide clear-cut strategic guidance for both the political and military leadership of each country for the decade ahead. At the same time, it would need to be suf­ficiently flexible to deal with multiple contingencies as they arose.

Also in the epilogue, Mr. Rudd reiterates his purpose as if he wished to be well-understood by his readers while underlining one last time the urgency and relevance of his latest magnum opus:

“Its purpose is threefold: to explain, for a mainly American audience, how the worldviews now dominant in China and the United States are pushing the two countries toward war; to outline how such a war could be sparked, what it could actually look like, and what unintended world-changing consequences could flow from it; and to consider what could be done, in realistic terms, to prevent it”.  

The Honorable Kevin Rudd, Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), the author of this book, is the former 26th Australian Prime Minister. He held office as the leader of the Australian Labor Party from December 2007 to June 2010 and again from June to September 2013.

Mr. Rudd majored in Mandarin Chinese and classical and modern Chinese history at the Australian National University. He has lived and worked in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taipei through different diplomatic postings before entering in politics. He is internationally recognized as one of the leading Western scholars on China.

Over the course of his career, he has met and talked many times with Xi Jinping, China’s current paramount leader. For him, Xi is an “impressive, knowledgeable, engaging interlocutor who rarely uses notes in his dealings with either foreigners or locals […] Like Mao, and to some extent Deng, Xi speaks his mind directly and forcefully”. Rudd also “spent a lot of time with many of Xi’s most senior officials, formally and informally, fleshing out the impressions [he] gleaned from across the Chinese system on how China views the world over many years”. Thus, he is well-positioned to offer a “reasonable representation of the strategic prism through which Xi’s China observes and responds to its domestic and international circumstances”.

In The Avoidable War, Mr. Rudd writes in beautiful yet understandable, English style; clear, to the point, without the pomposity or verbose grandiloquence that so often plagues the historical work of former government officials (While it possess other qualities worth noting, Henry Kissinger’s last opus, Leadership, is a good example of this regrettable tendency, formally speaking).

On one hand, Mr. Rudd “admires China’s classi­cal civilization, including its remarkable philosophical, literary, and artistic traditions, as well as the economic achievements of the post-Mao era in lifting a quarter of humanity out of poverty”. At the same time, he has:

“Been deeply critical of Mao’s depredations of the country during the Great Leap Forward of 1958, which left some thirty million from starvation; the Cultural Revolution, in which Mao eliminated his political enemies through Stalinesque show trials, leading to millions of deaths and the destruction of priceless cultural heritage at the same time; and human rights abuses that continue to this day”.

Mr. Rudd also lived for a number of years in the United States, writing that he is Intimately aware of the differences between the two countries…[he has] also seen the great cultural values they have in common – the love of fam­ily, the importance that both Chinese and Americans attach to the edu­cation of their children, and their vibrant entrepreneurial cultures driven by aspiration and hard work”.

Ultimately, the judgment Mr. Rudd brings to bear on US-China relations also reflects his personal loathing for jingoistic nationalism, which, following his own words, “regrettably, has become an increasingly prominent feature of many aspects of both Chinese and American public life”.

Since Chinese political thought is not frequently well understood in the West, it is indeed fundamental to any analysis of the likelihood of war and how it might be avoided, to understand Xi Jinping’s worldview, China’s current paramount leader, as prerequisite.

Rudd defines Xi’s worldview as “Marxist-Nationalist, because while his appeal to the party remains ideological (not least because ideology is the backbone of Leninist discipline), his appeal to the people is assiduously nationalist”.  More precisely, he sees it, rightly so I believe, as “aiming to bring forward the collective consciousness of an ancient people to the politics of the present. In that sense, it is potentially much more potent a nationally mobilizing force than Mao Zedong Thought was half a century ago”.

Rudd understands Xi’s core priorities as “ten concentric circles of interest—starting from the most important, concerning Xi’s position in the party itself, and moving out to other domestic political priorities and then to his unfolding international aspirations for the country”. He summarizes them as follows: staying in power; maintaining and securing national unity; growing the Chinese economy; environmental sustainability; modernizing the military; managing China’s neighboring states; securing China’s maritime periphery in East Asia and the west Pacific; securing China’s western continental periphery; increasing Chinese leverage across the developing world; and rewriting the global rules-based order.

He examines each of these core priorities in great detail to assess the overall likely strategic direction for the current decade as well as what it implies for the future of the U.S.-Chinese bilateral relationship; it is thoroughly researched, well-informed and clear-eyed on the many challenges and opportunities lying ahead (as of 2021). What is particularly interesting is that the reader comes to understand the current domestic drivers of China’s international policy behavior. For example, as Rudd explains:

“Xi’s rise should not be interpreted simplistically as the triumph of a new form of authoritarianism over those who supported the party’s long-term democratic transformation. Rather, his ascent should be seen as part of a narrower party debate about the particular form of authoritarian capitalism that China’s new leadership now seeks to entrench”.

With regard to the goal of the cornerstone of [Xi’s] vision, the China dream, also often described “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, or the restoration of China to the central role in global affairs it once held for five thousand years of continuous history”, Rudd offers a useful and sobering economic warning:

“Unless China can sustain high levels of economic growth for the decades ahead, its national strength will falter, living standards will fall, and unem­ployment will rise, with potentially dire consequences for the party’s legit­imacy in the eyes of the people”.

The last part of Rudd’s book is largely dedicated to America’s emerging strategic response to Xi Jinping’s China, the politics of the upcoming twentieth Chinese Communist party congress and what he calls the decade of living dangerously, in which he considers alternative futures for US-China relations.

This book earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.

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