Hindsight can be a painful exercise. It is sometimes also inevitable, thematized as "what could and should have been done to prevent Vladimir Putin's bloody war of aggression", or "how could the energy, inflation and supply crisis have been prevented from spreading throughout the world", or formulated as the question "how could the door be closed to the specter of nuclear war?".
We can turn this into a preventive exercise. There are two countries – China and the USA – that are in increasing systemic conflict with each other, which could trigger a major war. Kevin Rudd, author of the book The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and XI Jinping’s China, has the following starting point: The risk of both countries exceeding a fatal limit increases daily due to cultural misunderstandings, mistrust, historical grudges and ideological incompatibility. To a large extent, it concerns China's change after Xi Jinping's assumption of power in 2012.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has studied and lived in China for many years, speaks Mandarin and has met Xi Jinping several times. His impression is of a man of considerable intellectual resources – Xi does not use notes and demonstrates eloquence during conversations, though never in English, which he neither reads nor speaks.
The population accepts lack of freedom in exchange for economic prosperity.
The self-confidence is understandable. Xi is the President of the People's Republic, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission for an indefinite period. Under his leadership, China has grown into a superpower that only one can challenge – the United States. Xi's predecessors for the past 35 years had the motto of being "everyone's friend and nobody's enemy". Xi puts it differently, as at a party meeting in 2021: "Our time has come."
Ten priority areas
Come for what? According to Kevin Rudd, China's dictator concentrates on ten prioritized areas.
The first of these, the author points out, is to stay in power, to shape Marxist-Leninist socialism with "Chinese characteristics". This means authoritarian capitalism with the rehabilitation of Confucianism, to emphasize China's proud political, hierarchical philosophy. The 'China dream' is to lift the economy with average wages on an equal footing with the US. The problem is that the economy is deteriorating, that according to Rudd, Xi neither likes nor understands private business very well, and that state control à la Xi works counter-
productively. At the same time, the Chinese social contract depends on the population accepting lack of freedom in exchange for economic prosperity. Violation of this social contract will threaten the most important of all – Xi's power. He knows that should he fall from the throne, he is finished. Then an army of government officials he got rid of in his anti-corruption purge would return with one thought in mind: revenge.
Thus, Xi works tirelessly to cement his own infallibility. His writing Xi Jinping Thought in fourteen points is compulsory reading in all schools. The digitization of the social machinery has further led to an all-encompassing surveillance system, demonstrated by the system for 'social credit' which keeps the population under surveillance and rewards or punishes the individual according to the criteria of the party leadership. There are reports (outside China) of Chinese people who have for the time being found a last refuge: public toilets.
With the worldwide 'Silk Road' project, Xi has spun a web where his economic expansion includes ownership of twenty European ports, armed 'fishing fleets' in the South China Sea and a continuous patrol through the Taiwan Strait.
Ten possible scenarios
Rudd describes ten possible scenarios involving America, China and the rest of the world. Five of them involve armed conflict. He notes that the current systemic gap between the US and China is insurmountable, and that any trust that may have existed is gone: "The reasons for this are neither accidental nor short-term and not even traceable to Xi Jinping's influence over China. They are deeply structural.”
For Americans, says Rudd, Xi's leadership represents a radical change in China's official attitude to the world: "It was stubborn blindness that prevented them from realizing that the idea of a China moving towards an American-style democracy was always a Western fantasy." Now they see an increasingly anti-American Chinese nationalism that is steering towards removing the American military presence from the Eastern Hemisphere. US Foreign Minister Antony Blinken has commented on it as follows: "Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should, cooperative when it can, and hostile when it has to."
The writing Xi Jinping Thought in fourteen points is compulsory reading in all schools.
China, on the other hand, points to the helplessness of Western democracies in dealing with major challenges, such as the corona pandemic and political polarization. Nor does China apologize for using its new global power to rewrite the rules of the international system and the institutions it contains. The argument reads: This is precisely what a victorious America did after the Second World War.
Rudd states: "We are left with the basic dynamic which is rooted in the calculation of the balance of power and the assessment of how far the other party is willing to go to change it."
The author pleads for a solution he calls managed strategic competition. It is based on the assumption that the parties must define each other's strategic boundaries – red lines. Then they must leave room for rivalry within themes such as military, economic and technological capacity. The framework would stimulate cooperation at both national and international level – for example in the area of climate, which is a win-win for everyone. Rudd draws scenarios in every imaginable direction.
The Chinese Navy has had no war experience since the founding of the People's Republic.
What if it still comes to military confrontation, for example about Taiwan? The island state is America's declared "friend" and value-based ally. It is also the unsurpassed leader of the global electronics industry. Microchips are of fundamental importance for the future's digital economy and military technology. These reasons alone could have been enough for the US and the rest of the West to step in for Taiwan's right to defend itself. For Xi, his 'One China' concept is just as fundamental. Giving up the 'breakaway' state of Taiwan is, according to Xi's universe, unthinkable. After Nancy Pelosi's controversial visit there last summer, Chinese saber-rattling around the island has increased. It is however also a fact that the Chinese navy has had no war experience since the founding of the People's Republic.
It is not difficult, but all the more scary, to imagine the consequences of a war between the US and China. We have a taste of that after months of war in Europe. The 'Xiologist' Rudd considers his framework for strategic competition to be far from perfect – but invites everybody to come up with a better idea.