Can a U.S.-China War Be Averted?

Can a U.S.-China War Be Averted?

The two biggest dangers for the United States are that America will lose its confidence, or that either side will assume that “winning” necessarily requires vanquishing the other.


There is no dearth of commentators with ideas about, and proposals for dealing with, the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations. But former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd offers a unique perspective that merits considered attention. A genuine scholar of China who also has broad, deep, and close ties in both Beijing and Washington—without being either Chinese or American—is rare indeed. This allows him to speak frankly to both sides, which he does in The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China.

The purpose of the book, according to Rudd, is to “provide a joint road map to help these two great nations to navigate a common pathway to the future” and thus avert what Rudd correctly sees as a drift toward conflict. He is also correct in his diagnosis that “the worldviews now dominant in China and the United States are pushing the two countries toward war.” Rudd’s prescription is what he calls “managed strategic competition,” in which Beijing and Washington would pursue mutual understandings and rules of the road that allow them to keep their inevitable strategic rivalry within limits, while maximizing opportunities for cooperation where it obviously serves the interests of both countries.


Rudd fully acknowledges that this will be very difficult because of the “mutual non-comprehension” and “near-complete erosion of trust” between the United States and China. He also recognizes the domestic political constraints that will make it risky for leaders on either side to advocate restraint or anything that looks like accommodation or appeasement. But Rudd observes that the alternatives—including the current trajectory—only risk catastrophe.

One of the central themes of the book is the need for Beijing and Washington to overcome the cognitive trap in which they have put themselves by their failure to pursue mutual understanding or strategic empathy. This has facilitated both sides’ misattribution or exaggeration of each other’s ambitions and intentions. What is needed instead is a better appreciation by each side of how the other perceives and thinks about the world. “At a minimum,” Rudd states, “policy makers need to make a genuine attempt, free of ideological bias or self-delusion, to understand the prevailing ‘perception environment’ in each other’s capitals,” and to incorporate this into their strategic approach to the relationship.

Rudd is especially frank in issuing this call to Washington, partly because he was writing “for a mainly American audience.” He essentially says that the Chinese view of the United States is probably more accurate than the U.S. view of China: “While China’s understanding of modern America may be imperfect, it is more disciplined and sophisticated than what we find today among Washington’s political elites in their understanding of what actually makes China tick.” Rudd’s readiness as a foreigner to speak bluntly to his American friends and associates is similarly reflected in his characterization of U.S. policy toward China as having been “driven in recent years by a destabilizing mix of ill-considered strategic panic and domestic political opportunism.” As a result, “the policy appetite and political space for a more rational American approach [to China] remains limited.” This is harsh criticism, but not misplaced.

But Rudd directs no less attention and criticism toward China. Indeed, half of the book is an in-depth explication of “Xi Jinping’s worldview,” structured as “ten concentric circles of interest” (which Rudd compares to American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s classic “hierarchy of needs”). These begin with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) top priority of remaining in power and in control, and radiate out to encompass the CCP’s internal pursuit of economic and social stability, border security, and territorial integrity; and its external pursuit of regional and global influence, leverage, and security. The recurring theme that is most relevant to U.S.-China relations is Beijing’s view that it is contending with Washington on virtually all of China’s needs and priorities. This is because Chinese leaders see American contempt for the CCP, and what they interpret at Washington’s goal of regime change in Beijing, as the greatest threat to China’s internal stability. Similarly, they see (what they interpret as) a U.S. policy of containing China regionally and obstructing its power and influence globally as China’s primary external challenge. Rudd comprehensively outlines Xi’s strategy for confronting this perceived threat, which focuses on reinforcing the CCP’s domestic authority at home, while pursuing more activist and assertive policies abroad to score points against the United States and maximize China’s global position and clout.

Two key elements of Rudd’s discussion of Xi’s worldview and ambitions raise questions that are ripe for debate. The first is his focus on Xi personally, which is ambivalent or at least inconclusive on the extent to which Chinese foreign policy is a reflection of Xi’s own influence and preferences, or of drivers that transcend his leadership and predate his tenure. Rudd asserts that Xi “changed the course of China’s strategic relationship with the United States forever” when “back in 2014 ... he changed China’s grand strategy from an essentially defensive posture to a more activist policy seeking to advance Chinese interests and values across the region and the world.” But Beijing’s more activist and assertive posture was already in train under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who five years earlier had essentially announced Beijing’s retreat from Deng Xiaoping’s longstanding guidance for China to “hide its capabilities and bide its time.” Indeed, China scholar Rush Doshi—now working in Biden’s National Security Council—wrote last year that attributing China’s recent assertiveness to Xi’s personality is “a mistaken notion that ignores the longstanding party consensus in which China’s behavior is actually rooted.”

Rudd appears to acknowledge this when he observes that the “current state of the US-China relationship is the product of a long, complex, and contested history,” and that “in many respects, what Xi has done is intensify and accelerate priorities that have long been part of the party’s strategy.” On the other hand, Rudd asserts that Xi has “changed China’s world view” by “reinvigorating the party’s Marxist-Leninist foundations,” “turbo-charging” Chinese nationalism, and “sharpening ... the country’s national ambitions.” But these all build on earlier trends and characteristics of the CCP and its agenda. Rudd asserts that Xi “has seen the return of the party to the epicenter” of Chinese policymaking; made it “clear that the CCP has no intention of ever transforming China into a more liberal democratic state”; and revealed a determination to “establish a Chinese sphere of influence across the Eastern Hemisphere, and dilute—and eventually remove—America’s military presence from the wider region.” The CCP, however, arguably has never left the epicenter of Chinese policymaking or revealed any interest in liberal democracy; and Beijing’s pursuit of a regional sphere of influence at Washington’s expense has been apparent for decades. Xi no doubt is a bolder and more decisive leader than his immediate predecessors, and he has put a strong personal imprint on Beijing’s international behavior. It is nonetheless important to recognize that his world view and strategic priorities are in large measure inherited and reflect a longstanding consensus with the Chinese leadership. They have also been driven in part by changes in the external environment, including actions by the United States and other countries, that have unfolded before and since Xi took the helm.

Rudd does address one key strategic issue over which Xi’s personal proclivities could have a decisive impact: Taiwan. In Rudd’s analysis, “it seems increasingly likely that Xi will want to try to secure Taiwan during his political lifetime.” Specifically, Rudd speculates that Xi might want Beijing to have the military capability to seize Taiwan “as early as the late 2020s should he choose,” or least to have “sufficient military edge against the United States” to prompt a political settlement with Taipei. This is certainly conceivable, but it constitutes neither the establishment of a deadline for unification with Taiwan nor a decision to attack when the requisite military capability is achieved.

The second element of Rudd’s discussion of China’s strategic ambitions that invites debate is his characterization of Beijing’s long-term global objective. He is on solid ground when he asserts that “China’s global strategy is to increase its economic, foreign, and security policy influence across all regions,” and to do so in part by taking advantage of “the relative decline in American power” and “American complacency and lack of attention to the importance of its traditional friends and partners around the world.” It is also increasingly evident that Beijing seeks “a dilution of American power and the increase of its own” in the global order. Going further, China clearly is “challenging the political legitimacy and policy effectiveness of the Western liberal-democratic model” and seeking “a future order that is more accommodating of authoritarian political systems” and “much more conducive to [China’s] political, ideological, and economic interests.”

But Beijing’s end game becomes fuzzier when Rudd cites Xi’s goal of “rewriting the global rules-based order” and efforts “to change the nature of the order itself.” Rudd acknowledges that “it is less clear how much China actually wants to change things [and] at what pace,” and he doubts that Beijing has “a detailed blueprint of what a China-led international system would finally look like.” What he does not address is the core question of whether Beijing is approaching its competition with the United States as a zero-sum or winner-take-all game: whether China, as is widely claimed, aspires to supplant the United States as the leading global power and secure a Sino-centric world order. Many policy analysts and scholars think so, but on the basis of little conclusive evidence. Doshi argues that Beijing seeks to “displace” the U.S.-led order, but it is not entirely clear whether that means “replace.”

Rudd is also somewhat equivocal on this core issue. He observes correctly that China is working to “expand [its] influence across the existing institutions of global governance” and has taken the lead in establishing new institutions (like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank) in which “China, not the United States, is the central organizing power.” He also notes that, in the crucial science and technology sector, Beijing is pursuing “long-term Chinese global influence and, if possible, dominance.” Perhaps most importantly, he notes that Xi sees “a new unfolding ideological struggle underway between state socialism and democratic capitalism, which China is determined to win.” At the same time, Rudd asserts that “at its heart, Beijing’s call is for a multipolar world” rather than a unipolar one. Most of the available evidence supports this assessment. This suggests that Beijing is focused more on maximizing its position and relative power and influence globally, rather than judging that it can and must become the global hegemon. Rudd is correct that Beijing has been promoting its development model and the “accumulated wisdom that China has to share from its experience.” But he omits Xi’s insistence that China will not impose its model on other countries or oblige them to copy it. In short, Beijing seeks to legitimize its governing model, but not to rule the world the way it does at home.

Rudd judges that the trend lines currently are in favor of China strengthening its position relative to the United States, but this is largely because he sees Beijing as having its act together better than Washington does. Indeed, he asserts that “America and the much of the collective West appear to have lost confidence in themselves, their mission, and their future.” It is for this reason that Rudd focuses on the need for the United States to demonstrate the “political resolve and strategic acumen” that will be necessary to meet the strategic challenge from China by rebuilding America’s economic and military power and reinvigorating its partnerships abroad. And Washington will only have the time, attention, and resources to focus on this self-restoration if it is able to avert conflict with China—which is where Rudd’s “managed strategic competition” comes in. Fortunately, he notes that Beijing has the same need and desire to focus on domestic priorities because China—like the United States—“does not at this stage welcome the adversarial strategic environment in which it finds itself.”

Rudd is not pollyannish about what “managed strategic competition” might yield. Indeed, he is downright dismissive of any potential for the revival of “strategic engagement” or “win-win cooperation” because “there has already been too much water under the bridge for that.” This, however, might be unduly pessimistic. Neither Beijing nor Washington should rule out the possibility of restoring a constructive, mutually beneficial relationship. There is in fact some overlap between Rudd’s proposal and Beijing’s advocacy a decade ago of a “new type of great power relations”—the substance of which is still inherent in China’s bilateral diplomacy and wish list. At the very least, it is premature or unnecessary at this stage to exclude the possibility of more positive outcomes.

It will nonetheless be a tall order for Beijing and Washington to accommodate each other with self-imposed constraints on their respective regional and international behavior. And it sounds illogical that they would agree to allow each other to focus on building their respective capabilities for their own long-term competition. But as Rudd persuasively observes, “that is the essential point.” Both sides would recognize that “managed competition” serves their interests because the only alternative is unmanaged competition—“with the loss of all strategic guardrails and the growing risk of crisis, conflict, or war.” The positive incentives for both sides also include the opportunity to reduce bilateral tensions, enhance cooperation in areas where it ultimately will be necessary, and allow the rivalry “to unfold relatively peacefully” rather than continue to escalate and become more hostile.

Rudd’s bottom line is exactly right: “In the world of ideas, systems, and governance, may the best team win.” And the “liberal-democratic-capitalist world” should feel at least as confident as China apparently does. The two biggest dangers for the United States are that America will lose its confidence, or that either side will assume that “winning” necessarily requires vanquishing the other.

Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).