A Look at “The Avoidable War” by Kevin Rudd

The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China by Kevin Rudd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has written a book on the relationship between the U.S. and China, and the potential for that relationship to rupture so badly that war is the result. It is an important book that brings some great insight to the diplomatic relationship so critical to the world in the years to come.

Rudd is not just a former Australian Prime Minister. He has a long history of interaction with top Chinese officials in his various governmental roles, speaks fluent Mandarin, and continues to be a key figure through his presidency of the Asia Society Political Institute. This book is reflective of that knowledge, and brings his ideas on the best way forward for both countries. The book importantly brings his ideas on what the Chinese perspective is, with the advantage of having spoken directly with Xi on many occasions, and before Xi ascended to his current position.

I would not describe the book as a text, but it is a policy book that looks at specifics, and on that basis is not for everyone. But I believe it is important to actually examine what policy goals are driving Chinese actions, and what might be prudent U.S. responses.

Rudd does not look at the CCP as some have in the past, seeing hope for adoption of western style democracy. The error made by those who held such views, confusing a drive towards economic modernization with a move to political pluralism in China, is laid to rest fairly quickly. The misunderstanding of Deng Xiaoping and his sweeping economic reforms is explained:

“While not an orthodox Marxist, Deng remained a fully committed Leninist. Unsurprisingly, he was determined not to cede the party’s political powerful the sake of American economic engagement or common strategic endeavor against the Soviet Union. Even as he began his his reform and opening campaign in 1979, he vowed from the outset adherence to the Four Cardinal Principles and that China would forever ‘uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘the leadership of the Communist Party.’ In Deng’s words, while it was important for China to ‘open the windows wide to breathe the fresh air,’ the party’s responsibility was to continue to ‘swat away the flies and insects that came with it.’”

Rudd, Kevin “The Avoidable War” pg 35

Rudd’s book does not sugarcoat Chinese views. He gives us his view of Chinese priorities (Xi priorities) as ten concentric circles that he believes are core Chinese principles. His listing, and explanations, take up a large section of the book. It is an interesting approach, and covers some critical areas of the U.S.-China relationship, including “the view from Washington” on these China goals and principles.

Rudd ends up advocating what he calls “managed strategic competition” between the U.S. and China, with the goal of containing misunderstandings or miscalculations that could lead to the outbreak of war. Rudd’s view is that such a competition would importantly contain guardrails that would manage the relationship in a way that would allow for each nation to pursue its national interests within an agreed upon space that would prevent the outbreak of catastrophe.

Rudd’s prescriptions most certainly sound reasonable, and he challenges critics to offer alternatives. I do believe that his ideas on “managed strategic competition” are sound, and the idea of managing strategic competition without war have precedent in the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Of course such a “managed relationship” requires both parties to be willing to do the diplomatic heavy work required to achieve that sort of consensus. It also requires that some issues that are fairly intractable, like Taiwan, be put off, effectively kicking the can down the road. From the U.S. perspective I am quite sure that such a short term forestalling of the Taiwan issue would be quite satisfactory. I am not so sure it would be satisfactory to China. Since the Shanghai Communique both sides have finessed the issue of Taiwan, but the entire point of the newly ambitious program of Xi is to do away with some of the finesse. The principle of Chines foreign policy put forward by Deng, “hide your strength, bide your time” has effectively been replaced by a much more assertive posture undertaken by XI. Relative to Taiwan Rudd believes the issue can still be dealt with diplomatically, but he candidly deals with the military situation in the event of Chinese military action.

…”What it would require is for the United States to restore the wider military balance of power with China across the East Asian theater by redressing gaps and vulnerabilities in its current force structure and capabilities. It would also require the Taiwanese to take seriously their military deficiencies, which have accumulated over several decades and which neither side of Taiwanese politics has so far demonstrated sufficient determination to resolve.”

Rudd, Kevin “The Avoidable War” pg 379-380

He talks, in this context, of joint economic action by the U.S., Taiwan and Japan to fortify Taiwan economically in the event of a Chinese economic blockade of the island. It is also necessary, in my view, that Japanese military spending be increased dramatically to meet the challenges posed by China in the neighborhood. Current war-gaming has not shown good results for the U.S. military in a showdown over Taiwan, and those “gaps and vulnerabilities’ referenced diplomatically by Rudd need to be addressed if a military showdown were to be successfully prosecuted by the U.S.

Rudd homes in on the technological war between the countries, and the so vital access to chip technology driving the world economy today. It is a vital part of this strategic competition, especially with Taiwan being such a vital cog in that supply chain. A transfer of Taiwan today to Chinese control would have major, and very negative ramifications for the U.S. in that area.

It is not a unipolar world any longer. Understanding the other side of the key strategic relationship facing the U.S. today is vital if we are to get to solutions and policies that serve the nation’s interests while preventing war. Kevin Rudd has given us a book that will help to promote that necessary understanding. Even if you do not agree with all of his policy ideas the book brings the conversation where it needs to go.

Other Recommended Books:

Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

On China by Henry Kissinger

View all my reviews

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