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The Avoidable War by Kevin Rudd: Are the US and China on a collision course?

Review: The book has an avowed mission but it’s not clear what audience it is aimed at

The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China
The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China
Author: Kevin Rudd
ISBN-13: 978-1541701298
Publisher: Public Affairs
Guideline Price: £12.99

Kevin Rudd is unique among contemporary western leaders in being able to address his Chinese counterparts in their own language. The former Australian prime minister, a fluent Mandarin speaker, was a diplomat for many years before entering politics, with postings in the People’s Republic of China, pre-handover Hong Kong and Taiwan. In both careers, he has had a privileged position to observe Chinese leaders at close hand, both before and after their rise to power.

Rudd, now chief executive of the Asia Society, a New York-based NGO, offers up in this book a probing analysis of the risks of war between China and the United States, whose relations have progressively deteriorated over the past decade, against a backdrop of Beijing’s human rights abuses, Trump’s trade wars, the Covid-19 pandemic and a rise in anti-Asian racism in the US.

With an increasingly assertive China boosting its military spending and casting aside Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”, Rudd views its strained relationship with Washington as an emerging “Thucydides trap”, where, as with Sparta and Athens, the rise of a new military power risks making war inevitable.

Rudd notes a long history of mistrust and misunderstanding between the two countries, one that goes back to China's "century of humiliation" – its capitulation to western imperialism during the late Qing empire. Many in the West will be unaware of the particular bitterness that lingers in China since Woodrow Wilson's perceived betrayal of the nascent republic at the Versailles Conference. The US president had promised China it would get back German-held territories in Shandong in exchange for its contribution to the Allied labour corps in the first 
World War. China was not invited to Versailles and the territories were 
instead bequeathed to Japan.


Much of the book is given over to China’s ambitions in the decade since Xi Jinping came into office, represented by “ten concentric circles” of interest, as Rudd calls them. Primordial among those is the Communist Party’s continued supremacy in the one-party state. The outermost of the circles is changing the global rules-based order, with China, if not necessarily displacing the US, carving out its own regional and global sphere of interest, similar to what Washington did with the Monroe Doctrine.

Economic primacy is one of the ways it intends to do that, but it will also call on enhanced military prowess. It is a situation that Rudd says will demand greater strategic dexterity from Washington and its allies. His idea of “managed strategic competition”, which takes as a given that Xi Jinping will be around for another three or four US administrations, is one that many will recognise as “deeply Realist”, as he himself admits in the epilogue.

The first person Rudd thanks in the acknowledgments is none other than the high priest of Realism – and the architect of rapprochement between Washington and Beijing – Henry Kissinger. The affiliation will not sit well with some readers but, to be fair to Rudd, he is not dispassionate about leaving democratic Taiwan to its fate at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, as some political figures in the West tend to be these days.

While Rudd's thorough analysis of Xi Jinping's China can't be faulted, seasoned China-watchers won't find much new in it

A number of scenarios are gamed out at length, most notably Chinese attempts to take Taiwan by force, which is currently the only likely way the self-ruled island will ever be integrated into the People’s Republic. Rudd speculates that Beijing is still some years off being militarily ready to undertake such an endeavour. He is correct that such a gambit, fraught with logistical peril, least of all for an army that has seen little combat in more than four decades, could be potentially disastrous for Beijing and the Communist Party itself.

If Rudd’s book has an avowed mission it also has an unintended flaw, in that you wonder what audience it might influence. While Rudd’s thorough analysis of Xi Jinping’s China can’t be faulted, seasoned China watchers won’t find much new in it. Rudd, for his part, says the book is intended for an intelligent general reader, implicitly an American one, for this reason eschewing footnotes and a bibliography. But, given the widespread ignorance of, and, frankly, lack of interest in China among Americans (and many others in the West), it’s uncertain if the book will have many takers.

Ukraine invasion

The war in Ukraine also casts the book and the dangers it portrays in a particular light. China has trodden a careful path in reacting to Russia’s invasion, neither supporting nor condemning it (though Chinese state media has vocally laid the blame for the war on the US). It is hard to divine what lessons China might draw from the invasion. On one hand, it did not expect such resistance from Ukraine (as was clear from its advice to Chinese nationals in the country to sit back and wait for the Russians to quickly conquer), nor such a robust reaction from the West – something Rudd himself remarked on recently in an interview with Australian radio. On the other, the fact that one of its allies has invaded a democratic neighbour does create a precedent where a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is no longer so unthinkable.

Even had Putin's invasion of Ukraine been immediately successful, it would hardly have accelerated Chinese plans to annex Taiwan

That said, the differences between Russia and China are too numerous and substantial to offer many pointers as to how the war might dictate Beijing’s own geopolitical moves. Even had Putin’s invasion been immediately successful, it would hardly have accelerated Chinese plans to annex Taiwan. Should that ever happen, the impetus will no doubt come from within China itself. Nonetheless, the unexpected outbreak of all-out war in Ukraine has shown that the sheer belligerent will of an aggressor can rapidly vanquish calls for calm.

If such an attitude were to prevail in the near future in Beijing, or Washington for that matter, the war Kevin Rudd styles as avoidable may not turn out to be so at all.

Oliver Farry

Oliver Farry is a contributor to The Irish Times