Former Aussie PM: How the U.S. and China could avoid war

“Officials in Washington and Beijing don’t agree on much these days, but there is one thing on which they see eye to eye: the contest between their two countries will enter a decisive phase in the 2020s. This will be the decade of living dangerously. No matter what strategies the two sides pursue or what events unfold, the tension between the United States and China will grow, and competition will intensify; it is inevitable. War, however, is not. It remains possible for the two countries to put in place guardrails that would prevent a catastrophe: a joint framework for what I call ‘managed strategic competition’ would reduce the risk of competition escalating into open conflict.”

Kevin Rudd

So writes Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister (bio here), in Foreign Affairs magazine (article here).

The U.S. and China are likely headed for conflict. China’s economic rise, rapid military buildup, and growing assertiveness — under a leader who is more authoritarian and dangerous than his predecessors — along with irreconcilable differences will make it hard to avoid.

What does China want?

Simply put, to surpass the United States as the world’s dominant superpower, and get its way on a number of issues.

Xi Jinping intends to remain in power until 2035. According to Rudd, his goals include:

  1.   ” … achieving Chinese self-sufficiency to head off any effort by Washington to decouple the United States’ economy from that of China or to use U.S. control of the global financial system to block China’s rise.
  2. ” … what is perhaps his paramount goal [is] securing control over Taiwan.
  3. ” … [assert] maritime and territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas.
  4. ” … fully deploy its economic leverage in the hope of securing the region’s neutrality in the event of a military incident or crisis involving the United States or its allies.
  5. ” … achieve global economic dominance and regional military superiority over the United States without provoking direct conflict with Washington and its allies.”

How does China view the U.S.?

Xi and the Chinese foreign policy establishment believe “the United States is experiencing a steady, irreversible structural decline.” Given a politically polarized America, “it will prove difficult for any president to win support for a long-term bipartisan strategy on China.” And “Washington, Xi believes, is highly unlikely to recover its credibility and confidence as a regional and global leader.”

“But China worries about the possibility of Washington lashing out at Beijing … before U.S. power finally dissipates. Xi’s concern is not just a potential military conflict but also any rapid and radical economic decoupling.” And China fears the U.S. “might form an effective coalition” of democracies arrayed against it.

This may motivate Xi to “ratchet down tensions in the near term,” but if he does, that will represent “changes in tactics, not in strategy.” China’s long-term strategy will still be to defeat the U.S. economically, diplomatically, and if necessary, militarily.

What Biden’s election changes

China benefited greatly from Trump’s four years in office. “The Trump administration damaged U.S. alliances, abandoned trade liberalization, withdrew the United States from its leadership of the postwar international order, and crippled U.S. diplomatic capacity. … But by far the greatest gift that Trump delivered to Beijing was the sheer havoc his presidency unleashed within the United States and between Washington and its allies. China was able to exploit the many cracks that developed” in America’s traditional relationships to its advantage. This included trade deals tying European and Asian economies more closely to its own.

Biden isn’t blind to the threat posed by China. Rudd says, “He intends to prove Beijing wrong … that the United States is now in irreversible decline. He will seek to … rebuild the foundations of U.S. power …[,] strengthen the capabilities of the U.S. military[,] and … do what it takes to sustain American global technological leadership. He has assembled a team of economic, foreign policy, and national security advisers who are … well versed in China—in stark contrast to their predecessors” under Trump.” Biden’s ultimate goal is “to craft a durable China strategy with bipartisan support.”

“To lend his strategy credibility, Biden will have to make sure the U.S. military stays several steps ahead of China’s increasingly sophisticated array of military capabilities. This task will be made more difficult by intense budgetary constraints, as well as pressure from some factions within the Democratic Party to reduce military spending in order to boost social welfare programs. For Biden’s strategy to be seen as credible in Beijing, his administration will need to hold the line on the aggregate defense budget and cover increased expenses in the Indo-Pacific region by redirecting military resources away from less pressing theaters, such as Europe.”

Biden will also have to bring America’s allies into a coalitioin against China, and “restore the United States’ leadership in multilateral institutions such as the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization,” which otherwise “will increasingly become Chinese satrapies, driven by Chinese finance, influence, and personnel.”

One key takeaway here is that people who assume that Democrats have a “kumbaya” attitude toward foreign adversaries, always want to cut military spending, and will be a pushover for Chinese ambition, may well be misjudging Biden. He may have to fight with elements within his own party, but this is where his deep experience and many relationships in Washington D.C. would pay off.

Taiwan “Reunification”

Taiwan is the island fortress to which Chiang Kai-Shek’s defeated Nationalist Army fled in 1949 after being defeated on the mainland by Mao’s revolutionary forces, and China has asserted ever since that Taiwan is part of its territory, there is only “one China,” and it’s determined to someday gain control over Taiwan. But Taiwan has become a thriving capitalist democracy, protected (at least on paper) by the U.S., and Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong showed the Taiwanese people what they could expect under Chinese rule — and, for all practical purposes, took peaceful reunification off the table. Beijing’s response is to double down on military preparations for seizing Taiwan by force. That’s a difficult and daunting task, which is why China hasn’t done it yet, but Xi clearly intends to invade Taiwan at some point during his rule, before 2035, even if it means war with the U.S. forces, and much of China’s military modernization effort is aimed taking out the U.S. military’s capabilities.

Managed Strategic Competition

Rudd argues that while the “deeply conflicting nature of U.S. and Chinese strategic objectives and the profoundly competitive nature of the relationship may make conflict, and even war, seem inevitable—even if neither country wants that outcome,” China won’t go out of its way to start a war, and instead “will seek to achieve global economic dominance and regional military superiority over the United States without provoking direct conflict with Washington and its allies.”

He continues, “The question for both Washington and Beijing, then, is whether they can conduct this high level of strategic competition within agreed-on parameters that would reduce the risk of a crisis, conflict, and war” — what Rudd calls “managed strategic competition, which he argues, “In theory, … is possible;” but acknowledges that “in practice, … the near-complete erosion of trust between the two [governments] has radically increased the degree of difficulty.” The goal of this would be to prevent war by managing conflict.

A big part of the difficulty is that “many in the U.S. national security community believe that [Beijing] has never had any compunction about lying or hiding its true intentions in order to deceive its adversaries. In this view, Chinese diplomacy aims to tie opponents’ hands and buy time for Beijing’s military, security, and intelligence machinery to achieve superiority and establish new facts on the ground.” I don’t disagree with this view; China routinely spies on us and steals our technology, and tries to get an edge against us any way it can; I think we’d be foolish to trust them. Rudd’s answer is, “trust but verify” that they’re complying with the “agreed-on parameters” and set up a mechanism for resolving the inevitable violations. The “parameters” would consist of a series of stipulations that both sides will refrain from certain specificed actions likely to escalate tensions, similar to the framework set up by the U.S. and Soviet Union following their close brush with nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis.

Rudd says “the strategic rationale for” this approach is that it’s “better for both countries to operate within a joint framework of managed competition than to have no rules at all. … There will be many who will criticize this approach as naive. Their responsibility, however, is to come up with something better.” He believes China, as well as the U.S., is “in search of a formula to manage their relationship for the dangerous decade ahead.” If he’s right, that opens up possibilities. But what if he’s not right? What if Xi and the ambitious sycophants around him would see such an initiative as another sign of American softness, and a weakness to be exploited and then cast aside when the moment is opportune to attack? That’s a contingency I think America and her allies have to be prepared for — in order to deter it.

On that score, I trust Biden much more than I would trust Trump. All the evidence indicates that Xi and his men did indeed see Trump as a naive, gullible, spineless pushover. Biden, at the very least, is not that.

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