‘The Avoidable War’ by Kevin Rudd

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

I attended the book launch of “The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China,” the latest book written by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is also president and CEO of Asia Society that hosted the event at the iconic Willard Hotel in Washington, DC. The “Patrons-only” event was well attended by diplomats and senior US officials who joined in the discussion of the book which the author wished he “did not have to write.”

The Mandarin-speaking former politician and diplomat – whom I have met many times – describes himself as “a student of China and America,” having studied at the Australian National University where he majored in Mandarin Chinese as well as Classical Chinese History. He lived in the United States for several years, and professes a “deep affection for Americans, a profound interest in American history and a deep admiration for the country’s culture of innovation.”

Consisting of 17 chapters, the book is very absorbing and offers very deep insights about the “unfolding crisis in the relationship between China and the United States.” The way he presents the dangers we all face if these two behemoths engage in a full-blown conflict is impressive, asserting that the 2020s will be the “decade of living dangerously,” given the overall dynamics of the changing balance of power between the two nations, recognizing that war, while it remains a threat, can still be “avoidable.”

Much has been said and written by experts about Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ambition for China to become a superpower and thereby be in a position to challenge America’s global leadership role, particularly when President Xi declared in 2017 that China has entered a new era and should take center stage in the world. In his new book, Kevin Rudd delves on the current state of US-China relations which he says is the product of a long, complex and contested history marked by mutual distrust. “This deepening chasm of distrust did not develop overnight,” he says, pointing to a “recurring theme of mutual non-comprehension and deep suspicion” over the last 150 years, with each side blaming the other for the failings in their relationship.

I remember writing in some of my columns almost a decade ago about the brewing tension between the US and China, with then-US Pacific Fleet intelligence director Captain James Fanell warning about China’s expansionism, describing the Asian nation’s attitude as “what’s mine is mine and we’ll negotiate what is yours.” Even then, the former prime minister had likened the increasing tension to that of a “tinderbox on water” which has the potential to trigger a global crisis.

“The argument of this book is that our best chance of avoiding war is to better understand the other side’s strategic thinking and to conceptualize a world where both the US and China are able to competitively coexist, even if in a state of continuing rivalry reinforced by mutual deterrence,” says Rudd, also the chairman of the International Peace Institute.

Given the rivalry between the two nations and the fact that they still have to engage with each other, he introduces the concept of “managed strategic competition” – the same key message in his remarks during the 2021 Lanting Forum organized by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Managed strategic competition would “allow Washington and Beijing to conduct a high level of strategic competition while reducing the risk of that competition escalating into open conflict,” he said, explaining the need for a set of mutually agreed rules and “a system of guardrails” or strategic off-ramps to help preserve the peace among great powers.

The idea of managed strategic competition involves three key pillars: first, jointly establishing certain hard limits on each country’s (and allies) security policies and conduct to manage the escalation of competition into conflict over existential issues; second, for both sides to agree on a series of stipulations while accepting that the other will still try to maximize its advantages, stopping short of breaching the strategic limits of their relationship while pursuing strategic and economic influence bilaterally, multilaterally and the various regions across the globe; and finally, for both nations to find room for continued strategic cooperation on critical global challenges in a number of defined areas such as “climate change, combating the pandemic and improving public health, global economic recovery, financial stability and nuclear arms control, including limitations on AI warfare.”

The book also outlined “strategic red lines” that should not be crossed because it could result in military escalation (like the Taiwan issue, the South China Sea and cyberattacks on infrastructure).

There is both a “moral and practical obligation” for friends of China and the US to “think through what has become the single hardest question of international relations of our century: how to preserve the peace and prosperity we have secured over the last three quarters of a century while recognizing the reality of changing power relativities between Washington and Beijing,” Rudd posits.

“Should these two giants find a way to coexist without betraying their core interests… the world will be better for it. Should they fail, down the other path lies the possibility of a war that could rewrite the future of both countries and the world in a way we can barely imagine,” Mr. Rudd warned.

Certainly, this book is a must-read not only for scholars of geopolitics and diplomacy but also for our next president to better understand the challenges that lie ahead in carefully balancing our relationships with both China and the United States while maintaining our national interests.

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