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Kevin Rudd sees the danger of a surging China but lacks Reagan's and Thatcher's moral clarity
Beoordeeld in de Verenigde Staten 🇺🇸 op 4 oktober 2022
In The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China former Australian Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offers insight, gloom, and counsel for America.
Since cousin Great Britain passed the baton during WW2, America has been the world’s preeminent military, economic, and cultural power, and the architect and guarantor of the reigning liberal Western world order. Challenger China, however, is on the rise, and, increasingly, locking horns with the US. Rudd worries the burgeoning Sino-American conflict will ignite into a hot war.
After tyrant and mass murderer Mao Zedong died in 1976, pragmatic Deng Xiaoping become the Middle Kingdom’s paramount leader. Deng downplayed Marxist-Leninist doctrine and loosened state control of the economy to boost growth, famously quipping “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” Private-sector entrepreneurs were free to prosper, so long as that benefited the state, vivifying a sclerotic economy. However, despite the hopes of many in the West, the Chinese Communist Party didn’t loosen its grip on political power.
Playing a long game to strengthen China, Deng sought engagement rather than confrontation with the outside world. The US welcomed this apparent opening, and helped, supporting China’s accession to the WTO, providing the biggest market for the looming manufacturing colossus, and supplying needed technology.
America operated on the wishful assumption the Middle Kingdom would inexorably liberalize and integrate into the US-led rules-based liberal world order.
Now, by many measures, a surging China is the world’s number two power and aspires for ascendancy. President for Life Xi is in more of hurry than his predecessors. He’s purged the CCP of rivals, installed his myrmidons to head the military (“the gun”), the propaganda wing (“the pen”), and internal security (“the knife”), brought the oligarchs to heel, and extinguished nascent embers of freedom. Xi is the Middle Kingdom’s most powerful ruler since Mao. Barring a health issue or assassination, he’s likely to reign for years to come.
Rudd characterizes Xi’s worldview as “Marxist-Nationalist.” Xi’s China is increasingly ideological, nationalist, assertive abroad, and intolerant of internal dissent. He’s reinvigorated the CCP’s Marxist-Leninist foundations, turbocharged Chinese nationalism, and sharpened the country’s ambitions.
A recent Pentagon-sponsored RAND study concluded, "China’s rise in power on the world stage may produce a low-intensity conflict or a major war with the U.S.” RAND warns the US could “find itself confronting a peer rival for global leadership possessing far greater power than the Soviet Union ever held.” Like the USSR it threatens its neighbors and seeks world domination. But with 1.4 billion people, the world’s second largest economy, and greater technological prowess than the USSR, China is a more formidable foe.
Under Emperor Xi, the greater China’s military, economic, and technologic power relative to America’s, the greater the risk of war - or America ceding spheres of influence to Beijing.
In Danger Zone: the Coming Conflict with China US academics Hal Brands and Michael Beckley echo Rudd’s and RAND’s fear. But they worry China’s near-term window is as good as it’s going to get, and that, therefore, maximum danger is nigh. China’s demographic trends are horrific. By bringing the heretofore vibrant private sector to heel, Beijing will slow, if not suffocate economic growth. And increasingly alarmed about the Sino threat, Australia, India, and Japan are ramping up defense spending.
While a man of the West – a Davos man! Rudd postures a kind of moral equivalence and political neutrality over the conflict between China and America. Reading The Avoidable War, one could be forgiven for at times thinking Australia didn’t have a stake in the struggle’s outcome.
To avoid war, Rudd urges the US and China to adopt “managed strategic competition.” It has the flavor of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Washington and Beijing would still jostle across multiple fronts, but within agreed boundaries.
Why, however, would anybody expect Beijing to honor an agreement the second it thought the balance of forces were sufficiently to its advantage that it was no longer in its interest? Rudd himself acknowledges Americans have come to distrust China, with ample cause.
Rudd’s Green fundamentalism distracts from his warning and his suggestion that that’s an area for common ground is contrary to China’s and America’s economic interests, which China’s ruling elites understand but many of America’s do not. Projecting his own climate-change alarmism, Rudd declares “on climate change, China’s national economic and environmental interests mandate global cooperation.” Beijing’s actions, however, testify it rightly appreciates maximizing cheap reliable energy to fuel growth is in China’s interest, which is why it has the world’s largest fleet of coal-fired power plants.
In Clash of Civilizations political scientist Sam Huntington forecast if American elites remained confident, that the 21st century would be America’s and the West’s, but that that was no certain thing. Huntington viewed the principal threats as Sino and Islamic civilizations.
In a similar vein, Rudd contends “The key question today is whether the United States is sufficiently conscious of the dimensions of China’s rise and whether it is still possessed of sufficient political resolve and strategic acumen to deal with this formidable challenge to American regional and global power.” If it isn’t, China will become the dominant power in a darker world.
Rudd warns that “if there is no sustained counterstrategy from the United States over the next several US administrations that effectively rebuilds American power, reenergizes US alliances, and creates a credible global economic alternative to the long-term gravitational pull of the Chinese market, the overall trend lines appear to favor Xi Jinping’s China.”
Although Beijing’s use of its economic might to advance Sino interests is effective, it’s hardly attractive.
As a Sinophile Rudd criticized the CCP’s internal oppression. It’s crushed national minorities like the Uighurs, Tibetans, and Mongolians, extinguished representative government and freedom in Hong Kong, and eliminated or imprisoned countless dissidents. But Rudd’s realism cloaks moral timidity and accommodation. The CCP isn’t going to tolerate political pluralism or transform China into a good-faith pacific partner in the liberal world order.
In Red Roulette: An Insider's Story of Wealth, Power, Corruption, and Vengeance in Today's China, Desmond Shum, husband of arrested billionaire Whitney Duan Weihong observes “The Party has an almost animal instinct toward repression and control. It’s one of the foundational tenets of a Leninist system. Anytime the Party can afford to swing toward repression, it will.” Emperor Xi’s CCP has put an exclamation point on Shum’s lament.
Given a choice between economic growth and control, the CCP will choose control. Thanks to China’s phenomenal economic growth over the last four decades, Xi and the CCP think they can afford to swing back to repression and are doing so in spades.
Beijing is becoming more aggressive abroad. Canberra isn’t going to deter the Chinese colossus.
A world without an engaged muscular America, with China as global hegemon, would be decidedly less liberal, less free, and less prosperous. The best Australia could hope for would be to be a tributary state.
During the Cold War, Reagan broke with decades of accommodation of the Soviet Union – “the Evil Empire.” His strategy was “We win, they lose.” Reagan had moral clarity and backbone – qualities not much in evidence among Western leaders today - and framed the conflict in moral terms. He rallied the world, gave hope to the oppressed behind the Iron Curtain, and was willing to engage in an arms race the USSR couldn’t win.
Rudd suggests hopefully “America has begun to stir.”
Pieces of parchment spelling out the terms of strategic managed competition will not deter or constrain Emperor Xi’s China.
Military power and prowess matter. While for decades the US looked for opportunities to reduce and deferred modernizing its nuclear arsenal, China is rapidly expanding its nuclear quiver. Today it has the world’s largest navy. At the end of WW2, the US Navy had 6768 ships. Today it has 296. America should modernize and increase its navy, air force, and nuclear arsenal. And, most critically, it must dominate the 21st century’s commanding heights, space.
A confident America, militarily, economically and technologically preeminent, with muscular foreign and defense policies and committed allies, will deter imperialist China. Overwhelming American and allied strength, moral clarity, and resolution can check Emperor Xi’s China and keep it from menacing Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, and Australia.
Allies are more likely to be committed if America is strong and resolute.
Additionally, if the world and Chinese are very lucky, sustain pressure and moral condemnation will precipitate the CCP’s fall, and liberalization within the Middle Kingdom.
The Avoidable War is timely and eminently readable. Rudd is clear-eyed about the challenge China poses. He lacks, however, Reagan’s and Thatcher’s moral clarity and stones.
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