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"The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China"
by Kevin Rudd
PublicAffairs / March 2022
Reviewed by Denis Thompson
Kevin Rudd is a former prime minister and cabinet member in the Australian government. As a long-time China follower, he is fluent in Mandarin and combines extensive academic interest in China’s culture and hands-on contemporary political experience with the emergence of China as a challenger to the U.S. and liberal democracies worldwide. Published in March 2022, Rudd’s book was written prior to the surge of COVID cases in China (resulting in the widespread imposition of China’s zero-tolerance lockdowns), the election of Bongbong Marcos in the Philippines in May 2022 (a critical U.S. ally in the region), the Russian war in Ukraine and the related turmoil in energy markets. Nevertheless, it remains largely relevant today. It is written to inform discussion about Xi Jinping’s China in the run-up to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), scheduled to commence October 16, 2022. The congress’s central pillar is Xi’s re-appointment to an unprecedented third term as China’s paramount leader (unmatched since Mao’s rule).
Rudd describes 10 concentric rings of focus for Xi’s governing style. This model creates a visual representation of a leader who finds himself and his party in the centre ring with subsequent rings expanding outwards in diminishing priority. This interpretation works well and drives home the centricity of an authoritarian leader’s obsession with self-preservation. Rudd successfully describes Xi’s operationalizing of this fixation on self-preservation, through his quiet collection of all the reins of power, by overtly attacking the Chinese public’s perception of widespread corruption among CCP officials. Rudd convincingly describes Xi’s anti-corruption rectification campaign through the lens of a renewed emphasis on CCP doctrine and the suppression of challengers to his supreme leadership.
Rudd makes clear that while dictators need not curry public opinion, they ignore it at their peril. Xi’s success thus far is based on his ability to be the champion of China’s growing middle class and awaken China’s nationalism by a more recent transition to an aggressive Wolf Warrior, in-your-face, foreign policy approach. Observations about the extent of China’s surveillance state are a chilling imitation of Orwellian thought police that is harnessed to identify social trends early and crush any behaviour that Xi’s CCP considers aberrant.
Rudd identifies Xi’s tendency to support a more centrally driven economy as a weakness. The threat of free-wheeling billionaires, who have arguably been an important source of China’s rise, is a direct challenge to both Xi and the primacy of CCP doctrine. Rudd implies that the continued restriction of free market reforms will stifle innovations, affecting economic growth and ultimately threatening the inner rings of those concentric circles.
The book then transitions to the potential “so what” consequences for which Rudd convincingly lays out 10 alternative future scenarios. Of these, five involve war with the potential for escalation into a worldwide conflagration. These scenarios warn of the Thucydides trap that Rudd is keen to avoid by proffering a policy choice for the U.S. and its allies that he labels “managed strategic competition.” Such a policy would require a dialogue between China and the U.S. to define strategic red lines on both sides and flag potential areas of co-operation such as global financial stability, attention to climate change and reinforcement of nuclear non-proliferation. Admittedly, Rudd sees this approach as possibly just kicking the can of war down the road. However, it would give the U.S. and its allies time to address their current security shortcomings, particularly as they relate to the defence of Taiwan. In short, Rudd’s objective is to avoid the discourse of inevitability and put into play the logic of deterrence.
The book is a thorough review of where Xi’s China and the U.S. stand in the run-up to Xi’s almost certain redesignation as the paramount leader. While repetitive in places, such reiterations serve to drive home Rudd’s message, which simplistically encourages the following of Sun Tzu’s advice: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” To that end, Rudd’s work is an excellent primer.
The book has a more recent companion in the eight-part podcast by The Economist’s outgoing China correspondent, Sue-Lin Wong, entitled “The Prince,” available since September 28, 2022. It’s worth a listen on your next road trip.
Major-General (Retired) Denis Thompson served 39 years in the Canadian Army deploying on multiple operations at home and abroad in Cyprus, Germany, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Egypt including command of NATO’s Task Force Kandahar (2008/09), Canada’s Special Operations Forces (2011-2014) and the Multinational Force & Observers in the Sinai (2014-2017). Since retirement he has been a periodic lecturer at University of Ottawa, Winnipeg, Queens, Carleton, Bishop’s, and McGill as well as a Senior Mentor and Instructor at the Canadian Forces College, Toronto. He is a fellow at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies and remains in service as the Colonel of the Regiment for The Royal Canadian Regiment.