Here is the bad news. If we were to follow Kevin Rudd’s advice, as outlined in The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China (2022), we would likely not avoid war. Quite the opposite, in fact. The good news is that by reading Rudd’s treatise and understanding why he mischaracterises the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the threat it poses to world peace we might, paradoxically enough, be better situated to avert a catastrophic conflict. This, obviously, was not Rudd’s purpose in writing the book but at least his time, and the time of his eleven acknowledged research assistants, will not have been wasted.
Rudd, we should quickly note, is too often disparaged as yesterday’s man after being fired by his own party as prime minister before the 2010 election and then, after being recalled to power, losing the 2013 election to Tony Abbott. His petty and bitter recriminations on that front, The PM Years (2018) and The Case for Courage (2021), are not to be confused with his pre-eminent role as reputed expert on China or the genuine noteworthiness of The Avoidable War. On the one hand, Rudd’s extensive entry in Wikipedia which refers to him as “within the middle-to-upper tier in rankings of Australian prime ministers” is obviously a joke of some variety, and only adds to the ever-diminishing reputation of Wikipedia. Nonetheless, as a prognosticator on China, Kevin Rudd deserves—and needs—to be taken seriously. Kevin Peraino, writing a review of The Avoidable War for the New York Times, is right about this: “Almost nobody has enjoyed the kind of access he has had to Chinese officials.”
This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Rudd’s four decades of almost unparalleled access to Chinese officials is undeniable. Although, as Peraino points out, we get very few anecdotal insights from all those years of up-close-and-personal interactions with the upper echelons of the 90 million-strong CCP, his access—especially as a fluent speaker of Mandarin—is remarkable. For instance, as a young Australian diplomat in the 1980s he came to know Xi Jinping personally when they were at the start of their careers. That connection took on greater significance as Xi and Rudd became significant political players in their respective countries. Rudd has long planned to write a biography of Xi, even enrolling at Oxford to develop his research, and it would be an important read.
We should also note that Rudd’s long-standing access to Chinese officials does not mean The Avoidable War is an outright apologia for either the history or current trajectory of the CCP. There are numerous mentions of the Party’s “authoritarianism” and its unreconstructed “hardliners” and “hawks” pushing the regime in a paranoid or belligerent direction. Take, for instance, his brief explanation of the June 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, from Rudd’s perspective, sided with the hawks in the Party against characters like Zhao Ziyang. Other similar accounts of what the Party refers to as the June Fourth Incident speak of “liberals” and “progressives” losing out to “conservatives” in the Party Politburo (or closely associated with it). Deng had seemingly promised a more tolerant and normal and less impoverished China when he conspired behind the scenes in the overthrow of the Gang of Four in 1976 and subsequently purged the pro-Cultural Revolution or “radical” faction in the Party. Where had this diminutive pragmatist who survived (after being a victim of) Mao Zedong’s final bout of chaos and terror—see Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution (2017)—gone? What had happened to the bold reformer who only nine years before had authored On the Reform of the Party and the State?
Rudd’s answer is that Deng-the-Reformer never went away, as evidenced by the fact that in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and at the age of eighty-seven, Deng Xiaoping headed out on his Southern Inspection Tour to signify to “conservatives” in the Party leadership that economic liberalisation remained a top priority despite the mass slaughter of young peaceful demonstrators in the heart of the capital. The phenomenon of a “socialist market economy”, Rudd the self-styled “realist” explains, was never going to lead to Western-style democracy as others, less insightful than himself, chose to believe; but at least China’s cities began to “boom” and, moreover, Dengism was preferable to Maoist fanaticism or Soviet-style stasis with its economic paralysis, social rigidity and anti-Western enmity. In short, the gregarious Jiang Zemin, who took over as general secretary of the CCP after the purging of Zhao Ziyang, was preferable to the hawks and hardliners waiting in the wings should circumstances turn unfavourable. This explains Prime Minister Rudd’s description of himself in 2009 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, disclosed by WikiLeaks in 2010, as a “brutal realist on China”. In essence, Rudd believed that, in order to avoid conflict, the West needed to integrate the PRC into the international community as comprehensively as possible “while also preparing for force if anything goes wrong”.
Quite a lot of things, obviously, have gone “wrong”. Rudd would doubtless claim he has been even-handed in his condemnation of the CCP and the West. In 2017, for example, he lambasted Prime Minister Turnbull for insulting China with the patriotic proposal that the Australian people “stand up”—a cheeky recapitulation of a reputed Mao Zedong phrase—against Beijing’s meddling in our local politics: “That was just nuts.” The next year Rudd, at an Asia Society New York function, called for “a new strategic equilibrium” in the light of President Trump undercutting “the traditional moorings of US-China relations” with trade sanctions. Rudd went so far as to claim that the “reformers” in the CCP would take advantage of Trump’s diplomatic incompetence. He actually predicted that come 2019 Beijing could reduce the role of the state in its “socialist market economy” and even loosen restrictions on foreign investment. This would turbocharge China’s ascent to the role of unrivalled economic superpower and leave America in its wake. The “reformers”—who might be characterised as those at the top still sympathetic to the relative pragmatism of Jiang Zemin (1989 to 2002) and Hu Jintao (2002 to 2012)—failed to deliver on Kevin Rudd’s unlikely prediction. This was thanks to the intransigence of Xi Jinping. Rudd, consequently, claims for himself a certain scholarly fair-mindedness—getting the balance right, if you will—in condemning both the “hawkish” Xi Jinping and the myopic and ill-informed leaders of the West, including Donald Trump and Scott Morrison.
Rudd’s explanation for the collapse of strategic co-operation appears to be, in the first instance, not unreasonable. China and America are now engaged in strategic competition because neither side properly understands the other and, besides, their respective entitlement about spheres of influence—Taiwan, the East China Sea, Japan, the South China Sea, the South Pacific (including the Solomon Islands) and, yes, even Australia—dangerously overlap. In the opinion of Rudd, they are caught up in a latter-day version of the nineteenth century’s Great Game, with Xi Jinping scoring setbacks in some areas, Japan and Australia for instance, and successes in others, Nepal and Myanmar being cases in point. These two “wins” for China are instructive in the sense that although Kathmandu’s Maoist turn fast-tracked closer relations with Beijing, China’s strengthened grip on Myanmar was predicated on the military coup d’état of February 2021. In short, participation in China’s “transcendent global security”, General Secretary Xi’s latest term for his imperial ambitions, requires not so much ideological alignment as kowtowing—at a price—to Beijing.
We see the same scenario being played out in the Solomon Islands. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s decision to sign a security treaty with China was, according to the latest reports, based on Beijing’s promise to build airports throughout the islands and make the 700,000-strong nation a “regional hub” for tourism in the South Pacific. The bonus, from Sogavare’s perspective, is the presence of the People’s Liberation Army and even the Chinese navy should his local popularity decline even further, especially at the next election. From the perspective of Beijing, on the other hand, China will have a military outpost only 2000 kilometres from the coast of Australia, a nation governed by an administration that has repeatedly affronted the sensibilities of Beijing starting, back in Turnbull’s time, with accusing CCP operatives of interfering in Australia’s domestic politics, and more latterly being “hairy chested”—Rudd’s words—when it called for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Australia’s announcement that it was stepping up its military ties with Japan and joining AUKUS, on course to becoming JAUKUS in time, only encouraged Beijing to play the “Solomon Islands card” against the Morrison government near the outset of the Australian election campaign. The timing of the China–Solomons Islands pact gave Penny Wong, Labor’s presumptive foreign minister, the perfect opening to hammer the Coalition, describing the security treaty as the “worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War Two”.
Rudd is not immaterial to all this, and not just because Anthony Albanese has pledged to “emulate” the prime ministerial performances of Rudd and Julia Gillard. Albanese, in hindsight, has pursued a critique of Sino-Australian relations that has all the trademarks of the Sino expert who authored—with the help of eleven research assistants—The Avoidable War. There is that same sense of acknowledging fault on Xi Jinping’s part and also blaming Australia (and America) for the growing enmity in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus, in 2020, during the height of Xi’s trade war against Australia, Albanese blamed Morrison for having “presided over a complete breakdown of relationships”. Australia had to stick up for democratic principles, of course, but Morrison, in Albanese’s opinion, had offended China for “offence’s sake”. So, it came as no surprise that, in the election debate on April 20, Albanese castigated his opposite number for being caught off guard by the China–Solomon Islands deal and then promising to “step up” Australia’s commitment to the South Pacific: “This isn’t so much a Pacific step-up as a Pacific stuff-up.”
We only have to consult Rudd’s The Avoidable War to understand the thinking of Team Albanese on the rise and rise of China. There is an acceptance that Sino-US relations have now entered a phase of strategic competition and what the situation requires is the affected governments of the world—Australia, the United States, China, Japan and, well, all countries really—listen to what experts who are fluent in both English and Mandarin, such as Kevin Rudd, have to say about what Rudd calls “managed strategic competition”. By not paying attention to Rudd, the Great Game unfolding before our eyes has every chance of turning into a new Cold War or even something “worse”. Rudd, to give his Great Game allusion its fullest impact, warns we are at risk of “sleepwalking into war”. In respect to the China–Solomon Islands pact, announced after the publication of The Avoidable War, Rudd took the highly predictable position of disapproving this new development while, in the same breath, noting that Morrison’s “divorce” from President Xi made it more likely that nasty surprises would occur. Had Sino-Australia relations been better managed—as they presumably would be under a Labor administration—the danger of a “catastrophic conflict” would be less.
Rudd’s concept of “managed strategic competition” is his solution to Beijing’s challenge to (and likely defeat of) the Pax Americana, and all the protocols it agreed to when it joined the UN’s Security Council, the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF, APEC, the WHO, the G-20 and so on. Now we know, or should know, that the PRC’s membership of all these international institutions was based on a fraud: the Chinese play by the rules if it advances their interests and disregard any protocols that do not serve its interests. In this sense, China is the same rogue state it was before it was invited to join these organisations. We saw this in 2016 when it ignored the International Court of Justice’s rejection of Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea. We saw it in 2020 (as I outlined in “Dancing with the Devil: China and Covid”, Quadrant, November 2021), when the regime manipulated and deceived the WTO—and, in fact, the entire world—about the genesis, nature and spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We saw it when they jettisoned the provisions of the 2016 China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. We saw it again, most recently, when Beijing refused, in the UN Security Council, to condemn Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. China’s integration into all these international institutions and agreements has not so much sidelined the so-called hawks and hardliners in the Party Politburo as enabled them. Rudd, the “brutal realist on China”, has got the matter entirely wrong.
Implicit in Rudd’s analysis of the trends in geopolitics is the irrevocable rise of China to a position of such global strength and reach. America’s post-Cold War “unchallenged global leadership” has already passed its use-by date, not just in the Indo-Pacific region but in Europe, South-East Asia, South America, the Middle East, the Arctic … everywhere. Xi Jinping cannot help but regard the United States as a declining global power and China as the ascendant force, notwithstanding the vexation of America’s deep military reach into the Western Pacific and East Asia. Taiwan, then, will remain a likely trigger for a “catastrophic conflict”. Hugh White, writing in the February 2022 edition of Australian Foreign Affairs, is adamant that “Taiwan cannot be defended” and that any actual crisis of sovereignty concerning the island-nation (à la Hong Kong) will see America’s authority in the Indo-Pacific region “destroyed” whether such a predicament results in a war that America cannot win or its humiliating diplomatic climb-down. Rudd, unlike White, recognises that the potency of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force alone is cause for concern to Beijing. Nevertheless, he repeats the story that the prospective invasion of Taiwan has been war-gamed nineteen times in various interested capitals and each time the People’s Liberation Army has triumphed. Here we might note, in the aftermath of the Battle of Kyiv, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could have been war-gamed on any number of occasions and each time the Ukraine Armed Forces might have surrendered within two weeks. Putin’s war should serve a reality check for the capitulationism of both Hugh White and Kevin Rudd.
We can agree strongly with Rudd that the strategic competition that now exists between Washington and Beijing must be “managed” and a Third World War not inadvertently unleashed. A Pacific War, as the horror of the unanticipated twists and turns in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shows us, must be avoided if at all possible. The statement by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin that, eight or nine weeks into the conflict, the US now wanted to “weaken” Russia—that is, supply the heroic Ukraine Armed Forces with the military wherewithal to unambiguously defeat Putin’s forces on the battlefield—is preferable to Russia expeditiously annexing Ukraine. Nevertheless, Putin deciding against invading Ukraine in the first place would have been a far preferable outcome for all those who lives have been destroyed by—borrowing from Churchill rather than Rudd—a “needless war”, a war that occurred because one side perceived itself to be the likely victor on the battlefront. As I argued in the May issue, America and the West in general should take to heart Churchill’s lesson in time to stymie Xi Jinping’s designs for Taiwan.
If we are to absorb the message of Churchill’s lesson, Taiwan must be armed to the teeth before a one-million strong PLA invasion force sets sail across the Taiwan Straits. It must be guaranteed the full support of United States Armed Forces, Japan’s Maritime Defence Force and, yes, Australia’s Defence Forces. This must snap into place while Commander Xi and his coterie are still weighing up the pros and cons of ordering the PLA’s Rocket Force to level the towns and cities of Taiwan in advance of the biggest amphibious invasion since D-Day. It will not only be the 25 million citizens of Taiwan who are maimed, marred and murdered by the despot who rules China like his own private fiefdom. If the Russo-Ukrainian war is anything to go by, tens of thousands or more likely hundreds of thousands of PLA infantrymen will die as they attempt to cross the straits or disembark at one of the nineteen beaches prepared for their arrival with every kind of lethal defensive weapon. Then there will be many kilometres of jungle guerrilla warfare for the young Chinese soldiers to endure before they are greeted in Taipei with the latest version of urban warfare. If Taiwan’s “hedgehog” strategy goes to plan, General Secretary Xi and his regime will have about as much chance of surviving in the long term as Vladimir Putin and his henchmen.
Kevin Rudd’s version of managed strategic competition entails the leaders of the United States and China coming to their senses and realising that a war over Taiwan—or a conflagration in some other part of the Indo-Pacific region—would not serve either of their country’s interests. America, for instance, needs to repair its economy and catch up with the PLA’s latest technological advances. China, for its part, does not need a war at a time when its transformed economy has grown to such an extent that it exerts something of a “gravitational pull” on national or local economies and corporations around the globe. Rudd admits that if Washington and Beijing could be persuaded to put a form of guard-rails on their multi-faceted rivalry, they would be able to kick the can of war down the road a decade or so. This, admits Rudd, is not any kind of permanent solution to their rivalry but would, at least, take the heat out of their escalating hostility. One of the ways this might be done, suggests Rudd, is for Beijing to ease up on the aggressive rhetoric about Taiwan—“Do not test our determination!”—and America to restrict high-level diplomatic missions to the island-nation. The way forward could be for Beijing to formally put the invasion of Taiwan on the backburner and America to cut back on its sale of lethal defensive weaponry to Taipei.
Mutually assured verification, opines Rudd, ought to replace mutually assured destruction. It sounds like a sensible alternative to a new Cold War—but is it? For starters, the explicit Reagan referencing—“Trust, but verify” is the phrase—makes much less sense outside the context of the first Cold War in which it was used. However, Kevin Rudd, not unlike Xi Jinping, is opposed to Cold War rhetoric. China, for instance, disparages Australian-American co-operation in the Quad, AUKUS and the Five Eyes security arrangement because these encourage a “Cold War mentality” and the downgrading of multilateralism or “the politics of greater harmony”. Rudd, not dissimilarly, regards a new Cold War as only marginally preferable to a prospective Third World War, as if they existed on a continuum.
But the origins of the original Cold War tell a very different story. Containment, the great theme of the years from 1945 to 1989, was about avoiding a Third World War and not provoking one. George F. Kennan, back in 1945, envisaged a strategy of containing the Soviet empire because: (a) the belligerent paranoia that propelled Soviet imperialism meant no territorial space (such as Occupied Germany) could be shared with the Kremlin; and (b) an out-and-out military showdown between Washington and Moscow was not to be contemplated. Is there not something analogous in this situation with the one in which we find ourselves today? And was it not Ronald Reagan’s “Peace through strength” mantra in the 1980s rather than the détente strategy of the 1970s that brought peace to the world, a peace that has now been rudely interrupted or threatened by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping?
The greatest error in Kevin Rudd’s analysis, and it is unfortunately one of first principles, is that he does not recognise that the belligerent paranoia of the CCP ultimately makes it an irrational player in what he inexactly refers to as the Great Game. China’s post-Mao leaders, from Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang to Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, have wanted to see China take its place in the world as a major power respected by all other countries, with the one caveat that the dictatorship of the Party must not be challenged at home. The exception was Zhao Ziyang, and he was purged from power with barely a moment’s hesitation. The rest of them, lacking any genuine legitimacy, since the rule of law has never existed in the People’s Republic, purge and humiliate, jail and torture, execute and murder, anybody who threatens their absolute hold on power. They cannot share power with anyone or any group because of the paranoia that informs their belligerence or the belligerence that informs their paranoia. It is a vicious and nightmarish cycle which will only come to an end with the fall of the regime and the dissolution of the totalitarian CCP. Until then, sadly, the depravity of the Party will see China’s Uyghurs, Christians, Falun Gong members, Tibetans, Hong Kongers, genuine unionists, artists, legal reformers, celebrities, environmentalists and even loose-lipped billionaires persecuted and silenced.
China’s Orwellian regime cannot share political space inside the country with its 1.4 billion captive population any more than it can share the Himalayas with India, the East China Sea with Japan, the South China Sea with the Philippines and so on. Any more than it can share the South Pacific with Australia. Or the world with America. Beijing’s foreign policy is based on the Middle Kingdom’s entitlement to do whatever it wants wherever it wants in the world. There are literally no limits to its global ambitions—only the power and determination of the United States and any of its allies who choose to stand in Beijing’s way and not kowtow to Emperor Xi. Without such pushback, as Bill Hayton contends in The Invention of China, the Chinese Communist Party is on its way to becoming the final arbiter of “all under heaven” (Tianxia).
Everything to do with the CCP is a zero-sum game and any suggestion to the contrary, including the fantasy about managed strategic competitiveness, is no less suicidal than the half-century fantasy about strategic co-operation with China. The best we can say for Rudd is that, arriving in China in the 1980s, he misidentified the transitory (and deceptive) capitalist-Leninism of Deng Xiaoping with the Party’s deeper and more immutable character of imperialist-Leninism. That Rudd now has the ear of Team Albanese is disturbing. Morrison, during his first television debate with his opposite number, wondered out loud why Albanese had always taken “China’s side” during the deterioration of relations between the two countries or why when China starts “interfering in our region, somehow it’s Australia’s fault”. It’s a fair question.
The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China
by Kevin Rudd
Hachette, 2022, 432 pages, $34.99
Daryl McCann contributed “Churchill’s Lesson for Our Time” in the May issue. He blogs here.