The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China
Author: Kevin Rudd
Publisher: PublicAffairs, USA
Hindsight can be a painful exercise. It is sometimes also unavoidable, as in the case of «what could and should have been done to prevent Vladimir Putin’s bloody war of aggression» or «how could the energy, inflation, and supply crises have been prevented from spreading worldwide», or formulated as the question «how could the door have been closed to the spectre of nuclear war?»
We can turn this into a preventive exercise. There are two countries – China and the United States – that are increasingly in systemic conflict with each other, which could trigger a major war. Kevin Rudd, author of the book The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China, has the following starting point: The risk of both countries crossing a fatal threshold increases daily due to cultural misunderstandings, mistrust, historical grievances, and ideological incompatibility. To a large extent, this revolves around China’s transformation after Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has studied and lived in China for many years, speaks Mandarin, and has met Xi Jinping several times. His impression is that of a man with considerable intellectual resources – Xi does not use notes and demonstrates eloquence during conversations, albeit never in English, which he neither reads nor speaks.
His self-assuredness is understandable. Xi is the President of the People’s Republic, General Secretary of the Communist Party, and leader of the Central Military Commission indefinitely. Under his leadership, China has grown into a superpower that only one can challenge – the United States. Xi’s predecessors in the past 35 years had the motto of being «everyone’s friend and no one’s enemy.» Xi puts it differently, as he said at a party meeting in 2021: «Our time has come.»
the Chinese social contract is based on the population accepting unfreedom in exchange for economic prosperity.
Ten priority areas
Come to what? According to Kevin Rudd, China’s autocrat focuses on ten priority areas.
The first of these, the author emphasises, is to retain the power to shape Marxist-Leninist socialism with «Chinese characteristics.» This means authoritarian capitalism with the rehabilitation of Confucianism to emphasise China’s proud political, hierarchical philosophy. The «Chinese Dream» is to lift the economy with average wages on par with the United States. The problem is that the economy is deteriorating, that Xi, according to Rudd, neither likes nor understands private business very well and that state control, à la Xi, seems counterproductive. At the same time, the Chinese social contract is based on the population accepting unfreedom in exchange for economic prosperity. A breach of this social contract would threaten the most important thing – Xi’s power. He knows that if he were to fall from the throne, he would be finished. A host of government officials he purged in his anti-corruption campaign would return with one thought in mind: revenge.
Thus, Xi is working tirelessly to cement his infallibility. His book, Xi Jinping Thought in 14 Points, is mandatory reading in all schools. The digitisation of society has further led to an all-encompassing surveillance system, demonstrated by the «social credit» system that monitors and rewards or punishes individuals according to the Party’s criteria. There are reports (outside of China) of Chinese people who have found a last refuge: public toilets.
With the worldwide Belt and Road Initiative, Xi has spun a web in which his economic expansion includes owning twenty European ports, armed «fishing fleets» in the South China Sea, and continuous patrols through the Taiwan Strait.
Ten possible scenarios
Rudd describes ten possible scenarios involving America, China, and the rest of the world. Five of them include armed conflict. He observes that the current systemic divide between the United States and China is insurmountable, and the trust that may have existed is gone: «The reasons for this are neither random nor fleeting, and not even attributable to Xi Jinping’s influence over China. They are deeply structural.»
For Americans, Rudd says, Xi’s leadership represents a radical change in China’s official attitude towards the world: «It was stubborn blindness that prevented them from realizing that the idea of a China on its way to a democracy of American type was always a Western fantasy.» Now they see an increasingly anti-American Chinese nationalism that aims to remove American military presence from the Eastern Hemisphere. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented on it: «Our relationship with China will be competitive when it must, cooperative when it can, and adversarial when it must.»
China, on the other hand, points to the helplessness of Western democracies in dealing with major challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic and political polarisation. China also does not apologise for using its new global power to rewrite the rules of the international system and the institutions it contains. Instead, the argument is: That is exactly what a victorious America did after World War II.
Rudd asserts: «We are left with the fundamental dynamics rooted in the calculus of power balance and the assessment of how far the other party is willing to go to change it.»
«Xi Jinping Thought in 14 Points» is mandatory reading in all schools»
The author advocates for a solution he calls «managed strategic competition.» It is based on the premise that the parties must define each other’s strategic boundaries – red lines. Then they must allow room for rivalry in areas such as military, economic, and technological capacity. The framework would encourage cooperation at national and international levels – for example, in the realm of climate, something that benefits everyone. Rudd elaborates on scenarios in all conceivable directions.
But what if push comes to shove, such as in the case of Taiwan? The island state is the declared «friend» and values-based ally of the United States. It is also the unrivalled leader in the global electronics industry. Microchips are of fundamental importance for the future digital economy and military technology. These reasons alone could be sufficient for the US and the rest of the West to champion Taiwan’s right to defend itself. For Xi, his concept of «One China» is equally fundamental. According to Xi’s worldview, abandoning the «breakaway» state of Taiwan is unthinkable. Chinese sabre-rattling around the island has increased since Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit there last summer. At the same time, it is a fact that the Chinese navy has yet to have any war experience since the founding of the People’s Republic.
It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the consequences of a war between the US and China. We have had a taste of it after months of war in Europe. «Xi-ologist» Rudd considers his framework for strategic competition far from perfect – but he invites anyone to come up with better proposals, he writes.
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