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Foreign Policy

Short of Disaster

Mar 11, 2021

In his latest Foreign Affairs article, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd defines success in U.S.-China relations in shockingly modest terms. As the title of the article suggests, “How to Keep U.S.-Chinese Confrontation From Ending in Calamity,” anything short of war might well be construed a win. 

To avoid total war, wise minds on both sides must exercise restraint. To avoid a ruinous clash both sides must: 

- Avoid a conflict in the Taiwan Strait which would result in “pain” of epic proportions and would “rewrite the future of the global order.”

- Avoid exchanging “debilitating cyberattacks.”

- Avoid “robotic warfare,” which presumably speaks to the frightening potential of AI and drone technology

- Jointly work with the World Health Organization to fight current and future pandemics. 

Cooperation on containing pandemics would be a resounding victory. Though Rudd had left it unsaid, some joint action on global warming would be a huge win, too. 

The end result, and the biggest success by Rudd’s stringent standards, would be for the two countries to compete openly while espousing different values, without one side overpowering the other. 

This is a bracing view. It is not a call to arms, but it is realistic, since the two sides are not likely to put aside their differences any time soon. Rudd eschews Pollyannaish claims of the U.S. being the eternal good guy, he gives China due respect, and his humble definition of success provides much food for thought. 

Compared to the kneejerk anti-communist bent of the previous administration, this view is a breath of fresh air, a welcome dose of realism. By Rudd’s estimate, it is China’s very strength that limits the options by which the West can manage or thwart China’s rise. As befitting a man with respected political experience, and fluency in Mandarin to boot, he brings a Sinologist’s sensibility to a rough and thorny topic. 

Rudd’s nuanced worldview stands in sharp contrast to the hate-filled rants of the anti-China crowd associated with the Trump White House, personified by Mike Pompeo and Peter Navarro. It is also of a different magnitude even of the Biden administration, which to date has shown itself captive to the same-old approach of positioning the U.S. way above China in the “natural” order of things. 

Given the hawkish stance and early signs of bellicosity towards Beijing on the part of Biden’s China team, there is not as much movement away from Trump’s China policy as might be expected. The Democratic administration’s policymakers would be wise to consider Rudd’s advice as well, especially China hardliners such as Lloyd Austin and Ely Ratner at the Pentagon, Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi at the National Security Council. With Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor and William Burns at the CIA, the main observable difference between the new anti-China policy and the old anti-China policy is more a difference of style than substance.  

Biden, a polished establishment pol if there ever was one, is almost as much of a promoter of American exceptionalism as Trump. 

One glaring difference with Biden, though, is that he seems to understand the language and purposes of diplomacy. He seeks to carefully, and to some extent secretly, coordinate policy with allies rather than tilting at windmills on Twitter in the middle of the night as his predecessor was wont to do.  

There’s less of a go-it-alone ethos under Biden than Trump, but coalitions do not make a righteous policy, and this is where Biden could get into trouble, even if he manages to get the UK, Australia, Japan, and even India on board. 

The infamous “coalition of the willing” that started a war in Iraq based on false and falsified intelligence is a case study of how coalitions—which in modern day practice are presented as seamless alliances and faits accompli, but are actually put together in backroom meetings with unseen arm-twists and the flourishing of sticks and carrots. The end result, however negotiated, gives the media and the public the misleading sense of unanimity and can easily lead a nation down an avoidable, primrose-lined path to war. 

Rudd, being Australian, is not a natural-born adherent to U.S. exceptionalism, in fact, he has every right to find this common U.S. perception to be annoying and troublesome.  

But as a leading politician from Australia, which has long been a close partner of the U.S., notably as intelligence-sharing allies as a “Five Eyes” member, Rudd has spent most of his career roped into an obligatory pro-U.S. worldview, both for reasons that make strategic sense, and reasons that reflect the reality that Australia is at best a junior partner of the U.S. and must make concessions to U.S. demands, even when they are questionable. The wars in Vietnam and Iraq illustrate the tendency to follow Uncle Sam into conflicts not necessarily in Australia’s interest. 

While Rudd’s role in the latest highly coordinated U.S.-Australian joint effort to castigate Chinese influence operations in Asia is not clear, Australia is behaving, to borrow a Mao-era phrase, like a zougou or “running dog” of the U.S. 

It has allowed its own trade policies, politicians and intelligence operations to become a case study, a special contained political zone, where new techniques in a new Cold War are tried out before being adopted more widely in the U.S., UK, Canada and other closely allied nations. 

Australia is a petri dish for this new type of study in which the virus of foreign influence campaigns are isolated and exposed or neutralized. Chinese influence in terms of United Front activity, embassy activity, espionage and information warfare is at the frontline of this newly drawn up battlefront. 

As such, Australia is a victim of proxy conflict between the U.S. and China, by which big country politicians, afraid of direct confrontation, instead direct their aggression to smaller, softer targets. This, of course, was the modus vivendi of the last Cold War, which saw ceaseless skirmishes on the fault-lines of U.S.-Soviet spheres of influence, but little direct battle between the two. 

Something akin to that seems to be going on now, as the most volatile sites, and scenes of potential skirmish for U.S.-China competitive targeting are on the edge of China itself, witness the war for hearts and minds in Hong Kong and Taiwan, in Xinjiang and Tibet. But China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Cambodia and Burma, are also the site of smoldering influence campaigns, strategic investment and proxy battles between Washington and Beijing. 

What Rudd makes clear is that the relatively prudent China he cut his teeth on as a young diplomat is a thing of the past. A return to the honeymoon days, with that heady mix of mutual respect and strategic symbiosis of the pre-1989 Deng era, is not in the cards at all. 

If the East Wind prevails over the West Wind, will the West acquiesce to defeat and walk away with equanimity? 

Not likely. But then again it’s the nature of an ideological conflict for each side to think that their side is going to win. 

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