Avoiding a US-China war

In a speech last fall, President Xi Jinping ominously warned that : “The risks and challenges we face have obviously increased. It is unrealistic to always want to live a peaceful life and not want to fight.  We must abandon our illusions [and] fight bravely.”

Meanwhile, on our side of the Pacific, 82% of Americans now have an unfavorable view of China; according to a Pew Research Center report released in April.   When Pew started asking this question in 2005, 35% of Americans had an unfavorable view.  The percentage has been rising steadily since then, and this latest figure is a new high.

Last year, The Battle at Lake Changjin became the highest grossing Chinese film of all time.  It portrays the heroism of Chinese soldiers in winning a battle against the US in 1950, during the “war to resist US aggression and aid Korea.”

No sensible person on either side wants to risk a war that potentially could blow up the entire world.  But what exactly can be done to reduce that risk?

Some suggestions can be found in Kevin Rudd’s new book The Avoidable War:  The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China.  In my opinion, this is the single best book to read not just on the topic of avoiding war, but also on contemporary Chinese politics. 

In Rudd’s view, the risk of “armed conflict between China and the United States over the next decade, while not yet probable, has become a real possibility.” (p.  463).  This risk is based, he says, on “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.” (p. 23)

“Our best chance of avoiding war,” he goes on to write, “is to better understand the other side’s strategic thinking and to conceptualize a world where both the U.S. and China are able to competitively coexist, even if in a state of continuing rivalry reinforced by mutual deterrence.” (p. 23)

Rudd summarizes his advice in three major suggestions:

  1. Understand each other’s “irreducible strategic redlines in order to help prevent conflict through miscalculation.” (p. 422)
  2. Where the US and China have irreconcilable differences, channel disagreements into competitive economic races in such areas as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and aerospace engineering.
  3. Where the US and China have common interests, such as in minimizing the effects of climate change, engage in strategic cooperation.

These three points are consistent with the advice from other experts, and have been discussed in previous posts in this blog, including “The single most important question for the future of US-China relations.”  But the challenges of implementing suggestions like this are all in the details.  And Rudd’s book stands head and shoulders above all the rest in his sophisticated presentation of the underlying details.  

If the path to avoiding war begins with each side understanding what the other wants and needs.  China’s lack of transparency serves as an immense obstacle.    As Michael Pillsbury — a China expert in eight US presidential administrations – has summed up the result “Americans have been wrong about China again and again, sometimes with profound consequences.” (The Hundred Year Marathon, p. 4) 

But, as noted in the New York Times review of Rudd’s book “Almost nobody has enjoyed the kind of access [the author] has had to Chinese officials.” Rudd is a former Prime Minister of Australia and current President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a “think-do tank” dedicated to helping governments and businesses manage policy challenges within Asia, and between Asia and the West.  Rudd speaks fluent Mandarin and has visited China more than 100 times.  This background has enabled him to also have countless discussions with a wide variety of officials over the years, including Xi Jinping, whom he first met in 1986.    

Much of Rudd’s book is organized around his analysis of Xi Jinping’s top ten priorities (slightly rephrased here, with links to related posts in this blog):

  1. Assure that the Chinese Communist Party stays in power
  2. Promote unity through nationalism
  3. Guarantee economic prosperity
  4. Ensure environmental sustainability
  5. Modernize the military
  6. Manage neighboring countries
  7. Secure the Western Pacific
  8. Increase Western influence through its Belt and Road Initiative
  9. Increase its leverage in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Arctic
  10. Change the global rules-based order

Rudd describes these priorities as “ten concentric circles of interest starting from the most important.” (p. 96) 

Let’s start with number one on the list:  staying in power.  Of course, in one sense this is no surprise since almost every politician in every country in the world seems to want to stay in power.  What makes this especially relevant in the case of China is its recent history.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chinese leaders were afraid that communism could collapse around the world, including inside China itself. 

This led to literally years of study groups on the Soviet collapse.  In the end, China’s leaders concluded that “in the absence of the party’s strong central leadership… the country would simply dissolve into the bickering camps that had so often plagued China’s past.” (p. 106).  Or to put it another way, China would be much better off if the current leaders and their friends remained in power. 

Again from Rudd: “The shorthand form of Xi’s political narrative is simple: China’s historical greatness, across its dynastic histories, always lay in strong, authoritarian, hierarchical Confucian governments.” (p. 108)  And all signs indicate that the resulting nationalist movement (#2 on the list) is succeeding, and that the Chinese Communist Party is safe for now. (See my post on “Wolf Warrior nationalism.”)

Which takes us to the economy — #3 on the list above – and “the unspoken social contract between party and people: that the public will continue to tolerate an authoritarian political system under the party so long as the people’s material livelihood continues to improve.” (p. 127)

To date, the party has certainly delivered.  The last few decades of the Chinese economy have seen the fastest economic growth in the history of the planet, although progress has slowed in the last few years.  (For details, see my post “How the ‘China Model’ lifted 850 million people out of poverty.”)

The next few years and maybe even decades are likely to be far more economically challenging not just for China, but for the entire world.  In case you have been napping for the last few years, the world has been dealing with covid, supply chain disruption, the Ukraine War, inflation, economic inequality, food shortages, unsustainable levels of debt, and more.  No one knows the long-term economic effects, but it doesn’t look pretty.

And then there’s #4 on Xi’s list:  the environment.  Material livelihood includes more than just annual income.  The richest man in China — Zhong Shanshan, the chair of a bottled water company – is worth $66 billion, and ranks as the 17th richest person in the world, according to Forbes.  But no matter how much money Zhong has, it won’t do him much good if the planet burns up.

If you think the US has environmental problems, you should see China’s.  “The tragedy of China’s rapid economic development over the last thirty-five years is that the CCP subordinated environmental concerns to economic growth. This led to serious and health-threatening levels of air and water pollution as well as desertification, significant loss of biodiversity, and water scarcity.” (p. 171)  The resulting public concern has led to a “clean environment [becoming] a new part of the unofficial social contract between party and people.”

So when you put it all together, in the next few years Xi will have his hands full with internal issues – nationalism, the economy, and the environment.   This may reduce the resources China has available to devote to foreign affairs (numbers 5 to 10 on the list).

As both China and the US governments are forced to focus on internal affairs, one can hope that it will give both countries a bit more time to try to understand each other better and avoid war.

2 thoughts on “Avoiding a US-China war

  1. Eerily reminiscent of 1914 when England and Germany were triumphant, competing capitalist economies as Europe ruled the world. Then Serbia happened. Let us pray that Taiwan is not the new Serbia.

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  2. As I look at global conflict and lists of national priorities, how would countries interact if protection of the natural environment was made and held as THE central concern?

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