Escaping Thucydides Trap - Australian Fabians
21 May, 2023

Book Review - Michael Buckland on Kevin Rudd's ‘The Avoidable War'


The pages of Australian newspapers are littered with opinions and editorials on the rise of China. What does it mean for Australia and the world? A noticeable hardening of views against an assertive China has occurred.

As a dual Australian-United States citizen, I’ve always followed US politics. This is unremarkable in Australia where informed opinions on Trump are more common than on most state premiers.

We follow the highs and lows of US politics and are often critical of what we see. Whether we lament major misadventures in Iraq or just the proliferation of children dressed as ghosts and gargoyles on October 31 each year.

Yet for all the criticism we level against United States policy misadventures, Australians feel more comfortable in a world with US leadership. It’s not just formal agreements like ANZUS and AUKUS. It’s the rules-based international order and culture we understand (from language to sport to politics). 

The same understanding of China is missing. In his book, The Avoidable War, Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd presents us with a tool to gain an understanding of the China relationship that is so critical to Australia’s future. Since publication, our author has been appointed ambassador to the United States. His analysis is no longer just that from a sideline, albeit well-informed, observer but a current and future actor in geopolitics.

The Avoidable War grapples with the familiar question of how to manage the rise of China, but with a unique historical understanding based on Rudd’s personal experience and a genuine effort to craft a practical policy response.

He starts with tracking the history of Chinese-US diplomatic engagements and describing the frameworks used by policymakers in Washington and Beijing. In accepting that Xi Jinping is occupying the dominant role in CCP politics, the bulk of the book is devoted to describing his ten concentric circles of strategic objectives. What is driving Xi’s decisions?

The reader becomes privy to what feels like the insider discussions. It feels like an invitation to genuinely grapple with complex strategic challenges.

The central strategic challenge is encapsulated in two theoretical frameworks. For three decades now, many Australian and US leaders have promoted economic engagement with China. Economic reform, and the growth of the Chinese middle class, would slowly lead to political reform. Or so said policymakers.

In most cases the patience for this policy is at an end. The effort itself has led to feelings of resentment, with those in Washington feeling like the well-meaning economic engagement has not been reciprocated and instead, exploited.

In Beijing, the hope for political reforms becomes evidence that Washington never cared about the economic aspirations in China. Instead, the US was simply using its economic power to drive a political agenda. The result is a steady breakdown in trust and engagement.

For many now, the Thucydides Trap (describing a tendency of conflict between a rising power and an existing power) describes the China-US rivalry following the end of three decades of engagement.

The Thucydides Trap is often cited as presenting the theoretical case for an inevitable war. Rudd reminds us that the war is not the only outcome of strategic competition.

Rudd does not feel that war is inevitable. He recommends a framework be developed for Managed Strategic Competition. Not denying a rivalry, his hope is that a framework based on that developed between the US and USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis will give both capitals the tools necessary to compete without the disaster of armed conflict. Or at least, reduce the likelihood of accidental escalation.

Much of Rudd’s analysis rests in realpolitik. But his effort to present a practical solution requires some optimism. He does not for a moment present the framework for Managed Strategic Competition as foolproof. But institutions, processes and frameworks in geopolitics can shape outcomes. In fact, the current rules-based order we are intent on preserving is reliant on us accepting that institutions and frameworks have real impacts on state actors.

The Avoidable War is accessible and not presented as academic literature. Knowing that conflict with China will impact all of us, it is incumbent on us to form our own understanding. Bringing thoughtful academic analysis to a wider audience is a rich tradition in the United States and Rudd delivers in this tradition.

For Australians who are well versed in our former Prime Minister’s Chinese credentials, having worked in diplomatic postings across China for years and as a keen student of Chinese language and culture, the references to his past come across as redundant. But for the US audience that needs to hear his analysis, it’s a reminder of why they should listen.

You can’t escape the role of Kevin Rudd himself in the events he describes, often bringing anecdotes from meetings or decisions. But the manifestation of his experience is most obvious in the constant efforts to draw practical lessons from his analysis. 

For instance, more than once we are politely chided for spending far less time trying to understand Chinese politics, than Chinese leaders try to understand the politics of the US and Australia. Indeed, the lack of effort from ‘Western’ observers in trying to understand the drivers of CCP policymaking has become an engrained feature of the China relationship itself. 

It is not just the fault of Washington policymakers. During the Obama administration, the CCP has reassured the US that the artificial islands in the South China sea were not for military purposes. When US intelligence found garrisons and military aircraft using the islands it broke trust. Without trust, observers choose to root analysis in observed actions, rather than greater understanding, when both are necessary.

It is rare to be given an insight into the analysis, considerations, and objective of an active participant in geopolitics. With Kevin Rudd’s appointment to the post of Australian Ambassador to the United States, we have just that. With his mission in mind, the book takes on a more active tone, one that tells us more about the agenda to come.

In making his argument for Managed Strategic Competition, Rudd doesn’t pass moral judgements. He attempts to find a policy that the US and China can adopt, in both their interests. But at no point does he deny that he has moral complaints with China. He has voiced them.

Australia will continue to have strategic and moral policy disputes with China. It may still result in armed conflict that will impact us all.

As Australia and the US navigate a new era of international politics, we must understand the challenges that face us. In this way, Rudd’s analysis is a public service. In a democracy, an informed populace will help select leaders who can best navigate the policy challenges ahead. 


Michael Buckland is CEO of public policy research organisation, The McKell Institute.

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