May 20, 2022

International politics

The avoidable war

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

US President Joe Biden meets virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Between China and the United States, Kevin Rudd tells me, is an alarming static of incomprehension, mistrust and bad faith. Direct channels of communication are negligible to non-existent, diplomacy largely exhausted. Instead, there exists a paranoid antagonism made fuzzy by the absence of clear boundaries to their rivalry and the absence of formally declared areas of cooperation. Within this context, the risk of misapprehension and miscalculation between the two great powers is disturbingly high – and so too the risk of catastrophic escalation. “The term I use is ‘mutually assured non-comprehension’,” Rudd says. “And that’s not because the Chinese and the Americans don’t know a lot about each other. But there are aspects of their domestic political drivers which they don’t know sufficiently. And I have seen domestic factors in any country, democratic or non-democratic, often have been the decisive drivers of external policy behaviour. And we must also understand that China itself is not monolithic. Xi Jinping is the paramount leader, but the 95-million-member Chinese Communist Party contains within it a rather extraordinary diversity of views. And that’s something which Western political actors need to be aware of.”

Before entering politics, Kevin Rudd was a student of China and later a diplomatic officer there. At the Australian National University, he studied Chinese language and history, acquired fluency in Mandarin, and wrote his honours thesis on the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng. As a diplomat, he was posted to Stockholm and Beijing, and walked among the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. As prime minister, he met with Chinese leaders and had intimate discussions with its current president, Xi Jinping. Rudd is now a student of Chinese affairs again: he’s currently completing a doctoral thesis at Oxford on Xi, and woe betide his assessors.  

He has also just published a book on China–US relations. It’s called The Avoidable War, and it serves, essentially, as a warning to Americans: don’t sleepwalk towards an incalculably destructive war. That outcome is avoidable, he says, just as World War One was – a war that seemed unthinkable until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

Rudd proposes, with some qualifications, a historic framework to the current friction between the two great powers. It’s what the scholar Graham Allison refers to as Thucydides Trap. Allison defines this as “the natural, inevitable discombobulation that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power”. That is, the violent jostling of a rising power with an established one. 

In History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described the mutually destructive suspicions of Athens and Sparta. Athenian ascendancy clashed fatally with Spartan primacy, but the conflict wasn’t necessarily inevitable – it was fuelled by warped interpretations of each other’s intentions. Suspicions that became braided and mutually reinforcing.

Having surveyed 500 years of conflict, Allison offers 16 case studies for the “trap”, 12 of which resulted in war. It’s sobering. The weight of precedent suggests that war between the US and China is more likely than not.

But, Rudd says, history is not necessarily fate. The threat of warped interpretations can be mitigated by diplomacy and explicitly defined guardrails to the rivalry. History might rhyme, Rudd says, but “the agency of individuals matters too”.

In early February, as Beijing’s Winter Olympics were opened and before Putin invaded Ukraine, China and Russia released a long joint statement. They’d been doing this since 2001, when the two countries signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, but this one seemed like an alarming deviation from the previous. Each country ratified the other’s contempt for US hegemony, and tacitly reinforced the other’s territorial claims – i.e. upon Ukraine and Taiwan. While the statement declared no formal alliance or mutual military obligations it was conspicuously belligerent and forbiddingly declared that there were “no limits” to their cooperation. China also expressed its opposition to the expansion of NATO.

The statement went largely unremarked upon here, but I asked Rudd what it suggested about Chinese ambition and strategy. “It was significant,” he says. “It was right out there. Not just in terms of no limits to future collaboration, but also for the first time China explicitly opposing any future NATO expansion. And on top of that, taking a position which supported, quote, Russia’s legitimate territorial interests, unquote. So the length, scope and provocative content of that declaration was a significant departure from the 10 previous such joint declarations.

“It’s not simply a relationship of convenience,” Rudd says. “It’s structural. First, the Chinese want a benign border to their north, and in the history of China–Russia relations, it’s invariably not been benign. Second, a benign border to the north allows China to focus its strategic energies against the United States, rather than worry about another major power on an exposed northern frontier. Third, the Russia relationship is useful to China because it creates a whole series of secondary and tertiary distractions to the Americans beyond the Asia–Pacific, like Syria, Libya and Ukraine. And finally, Russia is a source of major energy and agricultural supply. So, for all those reasons – each of them independent of Xi Jinping’s and Putin’s mutual distaste for the United States – it’s a pretty robust relationship.”

That relationship is governed by two authoritarian men: Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Reading their official pronouncements about their respective countries’ histories and futures – pronouncements that are frequently cast in the language of destiny – it has long seemed obvious that both men view themselves as almost divinely exceptional, born to assert their will to reshape history and restore national glory. Rudd has spent a good amount of time with both, and I asked him how he thought these men conceived of themselves.

“I met Putin a number of times,” Rudd says. “I’ve read a lot of that which he’s said about the Russian nation and the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian nation, and therefore his predisposition towards revanchism and revisionism. And in Xi Jinping’s case, he does see himself as a great man of history, and sees himself through the great achievements of Mao. Like Putin, he seeks to change the course of history to that which would otherwise have been, which brings us back to the broader question of structure and agency in international relations. So, no. It’s not unfair to say that they conceive of themselves as men of destiny.”

About that “broader question” of structure and agency, I asked Rudd how singularly influential he thought Putin was in the current war in Ukraine. This question may seem obvious. Putin, as the long-reigning Russian leader, declared and is now prosecuting an indescribably brutal and fatuous war. How could his influence be questioned?  

But if Putin wasn’t leader, would someone else – compelled or supported by Russia’s czarist instincts, its mystical chauvinism, its memory of humiliation (humiliations arguably compounded by the West’s lack of magnanimity in the 1990s) – have filled Putin’s breach?

It’s a disturbing question, not least because it might suggest some reduction of Putin’s agency – the man ultimately responsible for this obscene war. But is Putin’s violence informed by history or his unique psychopathology? The answer can also be a very complicated mixture of both.

Like the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle – who famously wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” – Rudd stresses the importance of individual leadership. “I object to Thucydides Trap writ large, in that it’s a determinist view of history, which basically says we’re all fucked,” Rudd says. “So, I simply don’t accept that as a proposition, not just at a normative level, which I find objectionable anyway, but at an empirical level. I mean, leaders make choices. Churchill could have chosen to conclude we’re all fucked, because the balance of power of the Nazis was against us, but he didn’t. And Zelensky could have chosen to conclude we’re all fucked, because he’s up against the Russian army. But he chose not to. Agency is a very powerful thing in politics.”

It’s not preordained, in other words. And so we come to the thrust of Rudd’s book. He’s sensitive to historical forces, and deeply knowledgeable of them, but is wary of overly abstract or fatalistic interpretations of them. “That’s why the premise of the book is: we’re not simply strapped onto this historically determined future trajectory, which has as its endpoint crisis, escalation, conflict and war,” he says. “Individual leadership can prescribe exit ramps whenever it chooses to.”

Rudd’s point is that the antagonism between the US and China has no clear off-ramps, no clear rules, no clear channels of communication. I ask Rudd if it’s possible to harmonise anyway, when there are such extreme ideological differences. Or, if some form of non-lethal strategic competition is formalised between the powers – as Rudd says it must – is one cost of that simply accepting a certain level of CCP malignancy, not least its enormous “re-education” camps?

“If you accept that strategic competition is also an ideological and ideational debate,” Rudd says, “then it follows, as night follows day, you’re going to have a position which is structurally critical of human-rights abuses within China, whether it’s Tibet, whether it’s Xinjiang or whether it’s dissidents within the country itself, like the human rights lawyers that have been arrested. My argument ideologically is may the best system win.”

And may the best side win without the eruption of mushroom clouds, Rudd adds.

As prime minister, Paul Keating would often say that we need to find security in Asia, not from Asia. But for a very long time, we’ve conceived of our regional security in one way: seeking shelter beneath the umbrella of the United States.

What’s troubling about this, besides its myopia, is that it assumes the infinitely sustained power and stability of our great patron. But this was never guaranteed, and today American democracy is a diminished and questionable thing. Donald Trump may return in two years, or if not Trump an acolyte. But beyond that, the rich and contradictory vastness of America seems increasingly ungovernable. I asked Rudd if we had placed all of our eggs in one basket.

“My argument is always one about walking and chewing gum, which is to be maximally active and rooted in institutions in Asia and around the world, which [would] maximise the prospect of common security,” Rudd says. “But at the same time, being equally realist about the need to have your alliance structures in order so that if common security arrangements fail that you have alliance structures to fall back on.”

But we haven’t done that, Rudd says. For years our foreign policy has been a strange mix of slothfulness and energetic denunciation. On China, it has been a series of belligerent rhetorical improvisations. But, Rudd says, there’s something else – something uniquely weird.

“We [effectively] don’t have a foreign minister,” Rudd says. “We have a defence minister who is also the foreign minister. That’s relatively unique in Australia’s modern history. That’s the first point. Second is that this idiot defence minister believes that not only a national security policy needs a series of megaphone declarations, but that Australian foreign policy is best advanced by megaphone declarations. That constantly conflates and confuses two things: the declaratory nature of this country’s foreign and security policy on one hand, versus the operational nature of its foreign and security policy on the other. So, a more sophisticated diplomacy would, frankly, talk less and do more. My constant criticism of the current Australian government’s China strategy is that they talk a lot and they do very little. And when they have done stuff, they’ve flogged off the Darwin Port to China and other crazy stuff like being missing in action in the Solomons when their presence was needed. But they’ll give you a thousand speeches about the threat of China.”

We need to get much smarter about that threat, Rudd says. The stakes are too high not to.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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