Book Review: “The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the U.S. and Xi Jinping’s China” by Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd @HachetteAus @EasternRegional)

The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the U.S. and Xi Jinping’s China (Hachette Australia, February 2022) by Kevin Rudd

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd is described by Henry Kissinger as “a lifelong student of China [who] has become one of today’s most thoughtful analysts of China’s development”. Presently, he is CEO and President of the non-profit, non-partisan Asia Society, whose aim is to build awareness about Asia through education.

In The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the U.S. and Xi Jinping’s China (2022), Rudd warns a war between the two countries would be disastrous, deadly and destructive.

Although such a war is no longer unthinkable, Rudd admits: “When I think of the collective killings of the last century, I fully acknowledge that my mindset forces me to make every effort to do whatever can be done to avoid yet another episode of global carnage on an industrial scale.”

Rudd remembers the moment when, as a 14-year-old in October 1971, he saw the newspaper headline “The People’s Republic of China joins the United Nations”. While that headline inspired his lifelong fascination with China and its relationship with the U.S., his concern now is the welfare of the future generations, including his own grandchildren.

In his words, the decisions contemplated by our generation “will determine whether these little ones get to live in poverty, fear, and war – or prosperity, freedom, and peace”.

Rudd is responding to American scholar Graham Allison‘s Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’ Trap? (2017). As the ancient Greek historian Thucydides explained: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

In Allison’s view, as China continues its aggressive rise, it is probable that a certain trade conflict, cyberattack or accident at sea could soon escalate into all-out war against the U.S. That is, unless China is willing to scale back its ambitions or Washington can accept becoming secondary in the Pacific.

But Rudd offers an alternative, arguing both sides need to “preserve the peace and prosperity we have secured over the last three-quarters of a century while recognising the reality of changing power relativities between Washington and Beijing”.

Starting with a brief history of the U.S.-China relationship, Rudd investigates the myriad, complex factors that are driving this relationship in an increasingly confrontational direction. His proposed “managed strategic competition” is a comprehensive realist framework where both sides can be mindful of “what buttons light up in the decision-making processes on one side when a particular action is taken by the other”.

Ultimately, it is not just essential but existential for China and the U.S. to identify, define and accept the principles and procedures of navigating each other’s “strategic redlines”, the areas of “nonlethal national security policy”, and those areas where “continued strategic cooperation is both recognised and encouraged”.

Is this a “mission impossible”? Rudd thinks it is a matter of choice: “Our best chance of avoiding war is to better understand the other side’s strategic thinking and to conceptualise a world where [both sides] are able to competitively coexist.” Highly recommended.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “How to avert a conflict through the eyes of former PM” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, June 21, 2022, P.26.

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