Michel Temer / Flicker; White House; Chris Tilbury / Prospect

Failing to engage with China will lead to a growing threat of war

There is space for the west to co-operate with as well as confront China—so long as we try
June 16, 2022
The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China
Kevin Rudd
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org
Prospect receives commission when you buy a book using this page. Thank you for supporting us.

The war in Ukraine is deplorable for many reasons. The scale of human suffering, after the unprovoked assault on the sovereignty of a peaceful neighbour, is shocking. It seems like a throwback because in so many ways it is: land wars in Europe are so 20th century.

The western response has in various ways defied expectations. Unity and action have replaced division and dither. But it has all been done on the fly, making up for lack of previous strategy rather than in service of it. And that lack of strategy is precisely what worries former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd about western engagement with China.

I don’t know of anyone else in the west who can casually mention that they first met Xi Jinping in 1986 when he was vice mayor of Xiamen. Rudd was then an Australian diplomat on a visit to China with the then prime minister Bob Hawke. He puts his lifetime of observations to good use: this is an original, informative book that articulates his concern to sustain the values of the west.

Rudd calls his book a “letter to two friends… the Chinese and American peoples.” His concern is simple: that they end up in a war. Not a Cold War of the kind we became more or less comfortable with until 1990, but a hot war of the kind averted at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Of the scenarios for US-China relations over the next decade that Rudd lists at the end of his book, five involve conflict. The sense of dread is real.

Everyone agrees that Xi’s leadership marks a decisive turn for China and therefore for the world. This book is centered on close reading, in Mandarin, of what Xi actually says. Rudd calls Xi a “Marxist nationalist,” whose thinking revolves around three ideas. First, a desire to amalgamate Marxism-Leninism, which he learnt at his father’s knee, with Chinese tradition and Chinese nationalism. Second, to move “left” on politics and economics, with more repression and state control, and “right” on nationalism, emphasising the “Chinese characteristics” of his approach. Third, to build practice from the concept of “struggle.”

The central question for western foreign policy is how to engage with a China which, despite multiple domestic strains—not least dealing with its perverse “zero Covid” policy—has increasing weight to throw around in the global system, with growing implications for western interests and aspirations. On both sides of the aisle of American politics, there is not just a hardening of attitudes towards China but a default to the idea of a sustained “Cold War.” On the Republican side, there is often relish, while on the Democratic, resignation, but the zero-sum assumptions are similar.

Rudd’s book challenges lazy assumptions in a healthy way. In his model, there are 10 concentric circles that explain the Chinese leadership’s approach to state-building. The first one, a guiding light of all the others, is domestic rather than international. Xi’s priority is ensuring that the Communist Party stays permanently in power, and that he remains its paramount leader. From this comes commitments to secure national unity (Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan) and grow the economy in an environmentally sustainable way, then broadening out to the Chinese neighbourhood and the wider world. 

Rudd’s response is what he calls “managed strategic competition.” It has three cornerstones. Learning from the US-Soviet standoff in 1962, he makes the case for each side to set out “strategic red lines” that are clear and recognised. He then argues for strategic competition outside these areas, and for strategic co-operation in areas of mutual interest, like global health or the climate crisis. Rudd argues that we are doomed to a “decade of living dangerously,” but that it does not need to end in disaster—so long as the west gets its act together and fashions a way to engage with China. The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows the dangers that lurk when a fragmented west is too preoccupied with its own problems to think beyond its Twitter feed. We do not yet know the outcome of the war, but it has shown what happens when threats are ignored, weaknesses exacerbated and allies neglected.

We should attend to our own national problems, but there is no holiday from international events. In fact, what is happening in the rest of the world is more important than ever, because of the very interdependence against which the populist right now inveighs. 

One consequence of Covid has been that, for two years, informal and formal exchange with China has shut down. When I was last in China, in November 2019, a very senior official compared populism in the west to the Cultural Revolution. He told me he remembered the 1960s and 1970s, when the country was caught in a vortex of its own making. Ironically, Xi has talked up Mao since then. 

Kevin Rudd’s insistence that the west shape a realistic agenda for its relations with China needs to be heard. His knowledge of how the Chinese leadership thinks is indispensable in that task. There is space for co-operation as well as confrontation—so long as we try.