The American diplomat George Kennan, one of the architects of that order, once wrote that sound American foreign policy “must give the impression of a country that knows what it wants.” Still, it’s just as important to know what your opponents want. American adventures in East Asia are particularly notable for their long history of governments talking past each other. Frances FitzGerald, in her classic Pulitzer-winning account of the Vietnam War, “Fire in the Lake,” describes how Americans failed to understand even the “fundamental intellectual grammar” that underlies the region’s cultures. that they were trying to shape. “There was no direct translation… in the simple equations of X is Yes and a resources bAny attempt to find common ground “should recreate the whole world of the other, the whole intellectual landscape.” It is precisely this kind of dignified and ambitious intellectual re-creation that Rudd undertakes in ‘The Avoidable War. ‘.
The path Rudd has taken in his career to get there is certainly unorthodox. After leaving office, he enrolled at the University of Oxford at the age of 60 to study for a PhD focused on understanding Xi’s worldview. (According to one report, the Jesus College student body passed a brutal motion granting Rudd full access to the undergraduate pool tables.†Rudd, who has visited China more than 100 times and is fluent in Mandarin, is one of the few foreign politicians who has had the opportunity to get to know Xi personally — first as a diplomat when Xi was a junior civil servant in Xiamen, and later as Xi was vice president; on one occasion, the two men spent hours talking in Chinese before a winter fire in Canberra. Those conversations, among other impressions from his travels, have given Rudd a rare sense of China’s cultural hubs. “Our best chance at avoiding war,” Rudd writes, “is to better understand the strategic thinking of the other side and conceptualize a world in which both the US and China are able to co-exist competitively, even if in a state of perpetual rivalry reinforced by mutual deterrence.”
That task feels particularly urgent in the shadow of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The post-World War II order that underpinned the American century already seems to be fraying, as 19th-century-style power politics displaces it. Moreover, Russia is a relatively weak power, with an economy smaller than Italy’s. Should Moscow, through its diplomacy or its advances on the battlefield, succeed in persuading Beijing to join its efforts to reform that order, the global landscape could change dramatically. Xi has worked harder than his predecessors to bring Russian leaders to justice, flattering Putin by suggesting the two countries are equals and supporting joint military exercises. He called the Russian president his “best friend”; he calls Putin on his birthday.
So far, however, Xi has remained content to let Putin play the spoiler while China patiently bids his time. The Chinese president, Rudd noted, “recognises great value in Moscow’s willingness to act much more adventurously than China itself” — not only in Ukraine, but also in Syria. However, China is silently working on the reorganization of the strategic chessboard. For example, between 2012 and 2017, it invested more than $90 billion in building ports and coastguard hubs along a maritime route through the Arctic known as the Northeast Passage, extending the journey from Asia to Europe by more than two weeks and nearly 5,000 miles. . The route would also allow Chinese forces to avoid bottlenecks such as the Strait of Malacca, which are vulnerable to US naval forces.