Rudd makes sense about China

Autocratic government in the style of the Chinese Communist Party holds no appeal for me. I much prefer to live in a society where I can mostly think, say, and write whatever I want, subject to relatively minimal restrictions including respecting the equivalent rights of others. At the same time, I don’t see the Chinese government posing an imminent threat to my freedoms so dire that we must, as trumpeted by Peter Dutton and his ilk, prepare for war.

Earlier this year I read a piece, Reality check: Taiwan cannot be defended, by Hugh White arguing that there is no plausible scenario in which the USA could win a war with China in defence of Taiwan. He establishes that the core issue is regional dominance which the USA has maintained since the end of World War 2 but for which China is now a credible challenger. The confrontation is now centred on Taiwan.

All but a few countries, recognise the government in Beijing as the legitimate government of all China, including Taiwan. Somewhat oddly, as a consequence of the Chinese Nationalists moving to Taiwan after the Communists took power, even the Taiwanese constitution asserts that there is just one China. Its rightful government is currently exiled in Taiwan. Since Nixon established relations with Beijing, the USA has had a ‘one China’ policy with ‘strategic ambiguity’ about whether it would fight to support Taiwanese independence.

As China has increased its economic and military power to rival the USA, the posturing on both sides has stepped up. China is adamant that Taiwan must be reintegrated in time and would prefer it be sooner rather than later. White’s assessment of the military reality is that the USA could not prevail in a conventional war in which China would have the huge benefit of proximity. That leaves the threat of nuclear consequences which he argues no US President could accept with resultant destruction of US cities.

White’s conclusion is that there is no way the USA could prevail in a war with China. Realistic foreign policy for Australia (and the USA) must surely be to recognise that and behave accordingly. His more recent and longer Quarterly Essay, Sleepwalk to War, offers more detailed analysis and similar conclusions. He goes on to argue that Australia needs to take a more independent and assertive posture in foreign policy, seeking to persuade the USA to adopt a realistic stance that avoids war.

Between reading those articles I read Kevin Rudd’s book, The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China. Before he entered politics, Rudd was a diplomat, including in China. His university studies in Mandarin and Chinese history provided a foundation for that and post-politics he has continued to work in related areas. As a consequence he has firsthand experience of many of the key players and access to insights from others with deep connections to key people in USA and China. While that does not make him infallible it does mean that his writing is well informed and worth careful consideration if we want to avoid catastrophic conflict.

The greater part of the book describes the world view of Xi Jingping, and China while he is leader, in ten concentric circles. Innermost is the desire of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to maintain uncontested power in China. To large degree the other circles expand on how that can be done on the path to China resuming its rightful place on the world stage after a bit more than a century of humiliation at the hands of colonialist powers, including the USA. There are clearly ‘sticks’ involved in what appears to be a repressive regime but there are also ‘carrots’ in the form of improved economic circumstances. The Chinese people will tolerate less freedom than they might prefer for the sake of a more comfortable life. Increasingly a condition for that is environmental sustainability to maintain liveability.

Rudd discusses the possibility of open conflict as China seeks to assert regional primacy which has been held for all of my lifetime by the USA. His proposed solution, which he admits is not without difficulties, is ‘managed strategic competition’ in which the two powers need first to identify limits which they could not accept being transgressed. Beyond those there are areas where competition does not present problems and some areas, such as climate change, in which cooperation would be possible. As an alternative to catastrophic war that seems a desirable solution.

White, in his Quarterly Essay, is critical of Rudd’s proposed solution of ‘managed strategic competition’ because he assesses both USA and China as determined on regional primacy rather than any sharing of power. The core problem appears to be that the USA does not share power but continues to believe and act as if it can do whatever it wants wherever it wants. It’s that distorted view of the world that our leaders need to challenge when they talk with our ‘friend’.