Daniel Lazare reviews 'The avoidable war: the dangers of a catastrophic conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China' by Kevin Rudd (PublicAffairs Books, 2022, pp432, £17)
Someone should let former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd know that the title of his new book about US-China relations contains a typo. What he obviously meant to call it is ‘The unavoidable war’.
This is what readers who make it through all 400 pages of Rudd’s study will most likely conclude. The first 90% or so is devoted to the so-called Thucydides trap - named after the 5th century BCE historian who wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”. Rudd shows in relentless detail how the US and China are on a similar collision course, because Beijing’s economic and military rise puts it increasingly at odds with an international order that the US has devoted decades to crafting in order to maintain its monopoly on power.
This part of the book is highly persuasive. The remainder describes a way out via what Rudd calls “managed strategic competition” - a process by which Washington and Beijing cooperate in some areas, such as global warming and nuclear-arms control, compete in others, such as economics and ideology, but otherwise work to lower the military temperature overall. It is an agreement to disagree, whose purpose is to see to it that a dangerous rivalry remains within civilised bounds.
This part is highly unpersuasive. Indeed, the more Rudd goes on in this unrealistic manner, the more he convinces the reader of the opposite: ie, that the escape hatches are closing and that there is increasingly no way out. Instead of a one-front war in Ukraine, the likelihood of a second front opening up in the western Pacific is thus growing. And if you toss in the Persian Gulf, where tensions are rising, as US-Iranian nuclear talks teeter on the edge of collapse, there is a growing possibility of a third. Although Rudd puts the onus on China, the fact that America is at the centre of all three conflict zones indicates that the real problem is an overextended empire, whose frontiers are starting to crumble.
This is not to say that China is not itself a source of instability after three-plus decades of unrivalled growth. It is - and Rudd does a commendable job of detailing a growing list of problems that the People’s Republic now faces.
There is a geopolitical problem. China shares borders with 14 other states - the most of any country other than Russia. It is surrounded by hostile naval powers to the east - not only the US, but Australia and Japan. It has to cope with an inner ring composed of Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Hong Kong - all troublesome to one degree or another and all ripe for US subversion. It also has to figure out what to do about Taiwan, which Maoist ideology regards as an integral part of the Chinese nation, even though the Taiwanese nationalists who govern in Taipei think otherwise. So does Joe Biden, who made it plain last month that the United States would defend Taiwan militarily if China invades.
There is a demographic crisis caused by plummeting birth rates that last year reached a low of 1.3 births per woman - an 18% drop from 2019 and a sign that population may already have begun to peak. Although Rudd does not go into it, China’s population is projected to shrink by 14% by the year 2050, relative to the rest of east Asia: ie, India and all countries to the east minus Australia, New Zealand and eastern Russia. It is liable to feel more hemmed in as a consequence and more fearful of US efforts to cobble together a grand anti-China coalition.
Finally, there is the economy. Growth is slowing, debt, currently at around 300% of GDP, is mounting, while the mother of all meltdowns is underway in a real-estate sector responsible for as much as 29% of GDP. (By comparison, America’s overblown real-estate sector accounts for only 18%.) No-one knows how China will cope with a crisis of that dimension or whether it will be able to cope at all. Rudd neatly sums up the problem:
Given China’s already formidable ratio of public debt to GDP, there is a limit to how much it can continue to revert to government stimulus to augment any future economic growth gap arising from a faltering private sector. And, if economic growth, private-sector business formation and employment falter, this of itself generates the very social and political unrest that Xi Jinping’s political strategy seeks to avoid.
Having entered into a devil’s pact with the Chinese bourgeoisie, in other words, Beijing is at a loss now that the capitalist sector is beginning to implode. If one adds an environmental crisis caused by helter-skelter infrastructure investment as a means of pumping up GDP plus global warming as well, it is evident that China’s trentes glorieuses are at an end and a new era of volatility is dawning.
Rudd has studied China extensively, he is proficient in Mandarin and he has met with many of the country’s top leaders, Xi included. Hence, he is in an excellent position to dissect Beijing’s difficulties and explore where the country may be going. Much of his analysis is sharp and insightful. But his vision turns cloudy, when he turns to the nation charged with overseeing “managed strategic competition” in the first place: ie, the United States.
The US, he says, must take certain steps to promote what used to be called peaceful coexistence. It should shore up relations with its allies. It should launch
a new ideological offensive, both at home and abroad, based on democratic resilience and renewal, the universality of individual freedom, and the long-term effectiveness of liberal-democratic forms of governance - as opposed to what the US would describe as the oppressiveness, brittleness and corruption of the authoritarian alternatives.
It should strengthen the middle class and reduce economic inequality at home, on the grounds that workers
will not support any trade and investment liberalisation agenda unless they see advantages for themselves through lower prices, good jobs, better wages and radically improved universal education, healthcare and environmental standards.
All of which flows quite logically from Rudd’s neoliberal perspective. But there is a problem: the neoliberal political order is not remotely up to the task. The reason is obvious to anyone who follows American events. The US, caught in a downward political spiral since the 1990s, is no less unstable than China and probably more so. Its woes include a poisonous culture war and a decrepit 235-year-old constitutional structure that is visibly crumbling in the wake of last year’s attempted coup d’état. The fact that Washington is unable to respond in a remotely competent way to back-to-back gun massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde has left the country deeply unnerved. Yet no-one has a clue as to what to do.
Somehow Rudd expects a government that is unable to put its own house in order to get relations with China on a sounder footing. The US “will need sufficient buy-in across both sides of American politics, so that the 2020s becomes a decade of rebuilding American power, no matter which party holds political office,” he writes. “This will require unprecedented bipartisan consensus to guarantee strategic continuity across administrations ...” For anyone familiar with Washington and its corrupt, backstabbing ways, this is little short of laughable. Rudd may know China. But, even though he now lives in New York, where he is president of a Rockefeller-founded think tank known as the Asia Society, he does not seem to know America at all.
Rather than one crisis-ridden nation, the US-China rivalry thus involves two: on the one hand, a country that has allowed a vast capitalist structure to take shape within the confines of what is still nominally a workers’ state - albeit one of a thoroughly Stalinist character; and, on the other, a superannuated 18th century republic trying desperately to hold onto power despite age, obsolescence and lack of democracy. Both are in serious trouble. But the real risk is that two parallel cases of instability will intersect in a way that leads to a runaway explosion. The calm and steady leadership that Rudd is counting on to prevent such a blow-up is nowhere to be found.
Neither, for that matter, are objectivity and fairness - equally as essential if peace is to be maintained. The avoidable war is inadvertently revealing in this regard as well. In it, Rudd tells of an incident that occurred in March 2021, when “the EU (in coordination with the US, UK and Canada) unveiled human rights sanctions against China - for the first time since 1989 - in response to growing evidence of large-scale human rights abuses in Xinjiang”. China’s response was to strike back
with seemingly little understanding of the likely consequences. It imposed sanctions on a wide array of European policy think tanks, individual academics researching Xinjiang, and - most significantly - multiple EU committees and members of the European parliament.
China is thus clumsy and defensive, while the EU is concerned with human rights and other such lofty matters. This certainly fits in well with western perceptions. But what Rudd does not mention is that, rather than merely accusing China of human-rights violations, the US has gone further by accusing it of nothing less than genocide against Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority. The charge is incendiary, since, under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine adopted by the United Nations in 2005, it could conceivably be used to justify outside intervention to defend the Uyghurs against the ravages of their own government. Yet not only is evidence lacking, but the fact that Uyghur population growth has outstripped that of Han Chinese by better than two to one since 2005 (in part because Uyghurs and other minorities were deliberately exempted from China’s notorious one-child policy) renders charges of “demographic genocide” via forced sterilisation and mandatory abortion dubious on their face.
So does the fact that the campaign is largely the handiwork of a far-right German evangelical Christian named Adrian Zenz, who says he has been “led by god” to mount an anti-China crusade.1 Ditto the fact that Zenz’s charges were quickly endorsed by Mike Pompeo, the rightwing ex-CIA director who once bragged, “We lied, we cheated, we stole … we had entire training courses.”2 If a professional liar like Pompeo says it is so, then elementary logic says that the rest of us should assume otherwise.
So EU intervention was not as innocent as Rudd maintains, while China’s angry response was not as over-the-top. Beijing has seen how the US mobilises its awesome powers of ‘dimeflip’ - diplomacy, information, military, economy, finance, law enforcement, intelligence and population - to steamroll countries that get in its way, and it no doubt views the phony genocide campaign as evidence that it is next on the list. The fact that Rudd cannot even bring himself to question such charges shows that he is not the neutral observer he claims to be. All the more reason for China to assume that it cannot get a fair hearing in the west and that it should begin preparing for the worst.
Rudd’s book shows something else: the limits of forecasting. He apparently finished writing it late last year, just two or three months prior to the start of Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’ - which has, of course, changed everything. Did the US intentionally trigger the invasion by pushing Nato ever further to the east despite Russia’s understandable security concerns? Or did it merely blunder? The answer is probably both.
But in any event, it shows how the US is pushing the international situation to the brink. Just as Biden could not refrain from calling Putin a “killer” last year and cannot refrain from calling for regime change now, the administration cannot stop upping the ante over Taiwan. Every week brings a new provocation - new threats, new arms allocations, new visits by members of Congress eager to chip away at Washington’s official endorsement of the ‘one China’ policy.
Rudd had no way of knowing that Ukraine would explode. But, now that it has, the effect is to render his plea for peaceful coexistence all the more unconvincing.