Book review: “The Avoidable War” by Kevin Rudd

As the title of the book suggests, the author believes meeting jaw to jaw would be far better than catastrophic conflict and war between the US and China.  He also lays out in painstaking detail no less than 10 different scenarios, as a “cautionary guide” to policy makers navigating the dangerous waters in the decade ahead.

Would America have their Waterloo moment with China taking over Taiwan militarily or will it relive a new Korean stalemate with protracted military conflict and large- scale casualties on both sides?  Of course, ideally China and the US could also find themselves within a new world order without the need for military confrontation (Xi’s Optimal Plan).

At an interview last month following the launch of the book in Washington, Rudd said that writing the book was like giving birth to an elephant.  Indeed, the book is no light reading from a heavy weight Sinologist, former PM of Australia and current President and CEO of the Asia Society think tank.  Yet I raced through the chapters without too much effort, finding the tone and style flowing and engaging. Rudd also managed to dissect complex issues into bite sized chapters, shedding light on China’s concentric circles of concern and influence.

The kernel that lies within the first concentric circle is of course the Chinese Communist Party and the politics of staying in power.  Rightly or wrongly, Xi and the leadership believe that China needs strong central leadership lest it dissolves into bickering camps or breaks up like the Soviet Union had in 1991. With Xi Jinping thought now embedded in the Chinese Constitution and the removal of 2 fixed terms of the Presidency, the next 20th Party Congress in the second half of 2022 is likely to deliver the result he wants.

Other concentric circles panning out from the centre range from Ensuring Economic Prosperity (3rd) to Modernizing the Military (5th), to Managing China’s Neighbourhood (6th) and the Belt and Road Initiative (8th).  It is not till the 9th Circle that China’s Strategy Towards Europe is mentioned in conjunction with Africa and Latin America.

The book was written before the invasion of Ukraine, so we lack Rudd’s insights as to how global perceptions would have shifted since this major intervening event.  Nonetheless the theories and analysis still hold true in terms of the author’s recommendations that the global powers build a workable framework for “managed strategic competition” and multilateral diplomacy to achieve a balance of power and, ultimately, avert further conflict and war.

That is because “the risk of talking ourselves into a crisis is real” and the “sleep-walking of the nations of Europe into war in 1914 should remain a salutary lesson for us all”.

 

 

* Merlene was co-founder of Chinese Liberal Democrats and on the executive of the LibDems Overseas. She co-edited “Rise of China – Fresh Insights and Observations” published by the Paddy Ashdown Forum (2021)

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