An Avoidable War – The Dangers of Catastrophic Conflict between the US and China, by Kevin Rudd

Why this book:  I am in a SEAL reading group that read as one of our selections,  2034 – A Novel of the Next World War – which is a novel about a prospective war between the US and China.  Reading that book was disturbing, and after hearing about this book, I wanted to find out HOW we might avoid such a catastrophic eventuality.

 Summary in 3 Sentences:  The author walks us quickly through the history of US-China relations beginning in the early 19th century and brings us quickly into the 20th century, the Maoist communist revolt, and their assumption of power in 1949.  It wasn’t until 2013 however, when Xi Jinping came to power that things started to get tense. Much of this book is about Xi Jinping’s vision for “making China great again,” his antipathy toward the US and the US led international order, his distaste for liberal Western values and human rights, and how he is leveraging China’s economic power internationally, and Chinese Nationalism domestically to enhance his own and China’s power and influence in the world.  

My Impressions:   This is an impressive and eye-opening book that looks at multiple dimensions of the tense and evolving relationship between the US and China.  It current  as of the beginning of 2022.  But most importantly we get this unique perspective from a sinologist and fluent Mandarin speaker who twice served as Prime Minister of Australia, and who has met and worked with Xi Jinping himself and many of China’s top leaders over the last 2 decades. Rudd has lived in China, Taiwan and the United States and knows their cultures well.  Since his last term as Prime Minister, he has been a careful student of the evolving nature of China place in the world order and has served as  an advisor to leaders from many nations. 

This book offers a broad and balanced perspective on the issues that cause tension and competition between the US and China.  Learning about how these two formidable world powers interact is also very instructive on how nations compete and cooperate with each other, and vie for influence and power in the world.  We also learn the impact that the words and actions of these great powers have on foreign policy, trade, economics, ideological issues and the many factors, overt and subtle, that affect the way the international community responds.    He is able to address how he saw things change with US policy as America transitioned from the Trump to the Biden administrations.

Rudd was head of the Labor party in Australia and is clearly no fan of Donald Trump. He makes the  case that when Donald Trump pulled America out of many international organizations and forums for cooperation and discussion, he left the door open for China to fill the vacuum of great power influence in these organization, which they were more than eager to do.  Thereby, Xi Jinping was able to increase his and China’s power, influence and prestige internationally.  America was seen by many as no longer unreliable ally, which gave Xi Jinping and China a significant amount of leverage, and gradually and with small steps, he has increased his and China’s presence and influence all over the world.   Rudd describes how Xi Jinping has courted with money and infrastructure, many countries, especially in the developing world, and they are unable to resist the gravity of China’s huge economy and market for goods and services, all of which give China more power, wealth, and influence. 

Bur Rudd is also very open on where he sees China’s and Xi Jinping’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  He notes that the US is still ahead in many areas of economic and political competition, and that most countries would prefer a close relationship with the US, but China has been more forthcoming with aid, loans and attention.  Rudd notes that the US and Chinese economies are today in direct and almost ruthless competition in areas where there had been a more symbiotic relationship in the past. This he attributes to China clearly and explicitly setting out to supplant the US in power and influence, especially in Asia, but also in Africa, Latin America, and even in Europe.  

Xi Jinping is clearly the central figure in this book.  He reminds me a lot of Putin – having recently listened to Mr Putin – Operative in the Kremlin  I see in Xi Jinping a more cautious and calculating leader than Putin, but equally ruthless and ambitious.  He is not to be taken lightly.  Xi Jinping’s world view, ambitions and his priorities are central to this entire book. Rudd identifies three values that are core to Xi Jinping’s drive for power and influence.  1. He is a Marxist in his ideology, with a Chinese take on traditional Marxism; 2. Economic strength will be the source of his power and influence abroad; and 3. Fostering Chinese Nationalism will ensure his power at home.  He is not unlike President Trump in that regard, but unlike Trump, Xi Jinping is very cautious and deliberate about what he says, and is very invested in engaging with and influencing politically, diplomatically and economically the rest of the world to win friends and influence. Especially in the developing world. 

I listened to rather than read this book which meant I couldn’t highlight or take notes, which made it difficult to review.  The book includes so much content, most of which was new and fascinating to me.  But a list of the chapter titles will give a sense for how comprehensive his approach is.  Rudd’s writing is also very accessible to an informed lay reader – it is not written in economic or political science jargon – I found it easy and fascinating to listen to, and I looked forward to periods when I could give it my attention.

Rudd describes what he regards as Xi Jinping’s top 10 priorities – he calls them circles of importance – the first being the most important, and number ten being important, but less so than the previous nine.  He has bounced this list off of others who know China well, including those in Xi Jinping’s circle and has received general agreement.   He gives each of these circles a comprehensive chapter and goes into detail into how each of  Xi Jinping priorities stacks up against US capabilities.  He examines competition between the US and China and the West in each of these areas and how they affect US  foreign policy.  

After an opening introduction, the book has 17 chapters, ten of which address Xi Jinping’s priority interests, what Rudd calls “circles,” and he conclude with four chapters that tie it all together and a brief epilogue. Here is how the book is organized.

     Introduction: On the Danger of War

  1. A short history of the US-China Relationship
  2. The Problem of Distrust
  3. Understanding Xi Jinping’s Worldview: Ten Concentric Circles of Interest
  4. The First Circle: The Politics of Staying in Power
  5. The Second Circle: Securing National Unity
  6. 6. The Third Circle: Ensuring Economic Prosperity
  7. The Fourth Circle: Making Economic Development Environmentally Sustainable
  8. The Fifth Circle: Modernizing the Military
  9. The Sixth Circle: Managing China’s Neighborhood
  10. The Seventh Circle: Securing China’s Maritime Periphery: the Western Pacific, the Indo-Pacific, and the Quad
  11. The Eighth Circle: Going West – the Belt and Road Initiative
  12. The Ninth Circle: Increasing Chinese Leverage Across Europe, Africa and Latin America, and Gaining an Arctic Foothold
  13. The Tenth Circle: Changing the Global Rules-based order
  14. America’s Emerging Strategic Responses to Xi Jinping’s China
  15. Xi Jinping’s China in the 2020s: The politics of the Twentieth Party Congress
  16. The Decade of Living Dangerously: Alternative Futures for US-China Relations
  17. Navigating an Uncertain Future: the Case for Managed Strategic Competition


The final four chapters are particularly instructive, answering the “so what?” question that may arise out of his discussion of the 10 circles. He offers a multitude (over 10) possible scenarios that he could foresee coming to pass between the US and China in the next decade or so – many of which include war or armed conflict between the US and China, and what he thinks might be the consequences of each of these possible scenarios. 

He concludes by making his case for what he calls “Managed Strategic Competition” -what we used to call “strategic engagement” and the Chinese called “win-win strategy.”  In Rudd’s Managed Strategic Competition, the US and China would acknowledge that they are great powers competing for power and influence, but managing that competition well could serve both nations and avoid war, which many see as inevitable, and the horrific potential consequences that could ensue. Rudd points out how war between China and the US would be a major disruption in the international order, would probably cause untold death, destruction and suffering, and whoever might “win” would still lose. As would the rest of the world.

His compelling conclusion is that the US and China must manage their competition and relationship in such a way as to avoid war and best serve each country’s interests – at least over the next decade.   He makes that case strongly, and after reading (listening to) this book, I am a believer.  The Avoidable War is a great primer not only on US-China issues but on foreign policy and strategy in general. 


About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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