Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) – During a conversation in Hauck Auditorium, former Australian prime minister and current Asia Society president Kevin Rudd outlined to Hoover Institution director Condoleezza Rice the basis for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ambitions on the world stage and steps that can be taken to diffuse tensions in Sino-American relations.
Co-presented with the Asia Society of Northern California, the event was part of a book tour for Rudd’s The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China (Public Affairs, 2022), released earlier this year.
Drawing on firsthand accounts of his face-to-face meetings with Xi, Rudd said that the Chinese leader possesses enormous self-confidence, especially in comparison with his immediate predecessors. Rudd recalled that in conversations Xi didn’t reference notes and with ease and flexibility engaged on various complex matters of public policy.
According to Rudd, Xi has a profound interest in the history of China and that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In private, he is willing to talk about catastrophic episodes of Communist rule such as the Great Leap Forward (1958–62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). These instances of centrally planned social engineering together resulted in tens of millions of deaths from starvation and violence. However, he is disciplined not to talk about them publicly, for fear that it might promote nihilistic perceptions among the population about the party and undermine its rule.
Through the abolishment of presidential term limits by the National People’s Congress in 2018, Xi is poised to rule China beyond 2030. Rudd believes that Xi has three main ambitions in the next decade. A student of the Soviet Union’s collapse in the early 1990s, Xi is intent on preserving revolutionary control over the Communist Party and resisting reactionary forces. Second, his desire is for China to become the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific region (where in 60 percent of global maritime trade flows) and the world at large. Third, Xi wants to reunify Taiwan with the mainland.
Rudd noted that Xi faces a dilemma in his bid to expand state control over the economy, which has been the source of Chinese power and prosperity since Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms in the 1980s. For Xi, however, the fact that the private sector accounts for 60 percent of GDP comes at the expense of CCP dominance in the nation’s political, social, and economic life. Xi thus has had no qualms about cracking down on China’s tech firms and the wealth and data they possess, as in the severe scrutiny e-commerce giant Alibaba and its former CEO Jack Ma have faced from regulators.
So, will Xi be willing to kill the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs? asked Secretary Rice.
“Xi thinks he is being a great dialectician by saying, ‘I am ahead of the contradiction. I have spotted where struggle must occur,’” said Rudd about Xi’s belief in Karl Marx’s and Fredrich Engels’s conception that the driving force for change is two opposing forces coming into conflict with one another. Rudd maintained that Xi is willing to kill that goose, because as a Communist Party–trained apparatchik, he doesn’t intrinsically comprehend the benefits of market economies.
The rate of economic growth has steadily declined since Xi took power in 2013. Rudd indicated that despite this reduction, there has been no major course correction in Xi’s economic policy.
Xi also has not changed the radical course of the CCP’s foreign and defense policies. He has expanded China’s military spending by over 7 percent to more than $230 billion a year in 2022. According to Rudd, Xi is convinced that historical forces point toward multipolarity, and the political decline of the West and its democratic institutions demonstrate the superiority of the Communist form of governance adopted in China more than seventy years ago.
As the former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick had hoped, China has not emerged as a responsible stakeholder in the international system within which it has been reaping enormous financial gains since the 1980s. In a matter of a decade, China has been shifting the regional balance of power in its favor, a feat that Rudd attributes to the agency that Xi exhibits in his conduct in international affairs.
“Xi Jinping, in his own worldview, made a difference to adjust the status quo,” said Rudd, adding, “if you want an example of how he is doing that just look at his campaign of island reclamation in the South China Sea.”
For Rudd, Washington abandoned its passive approach toward Beijing during the Trump administration, when General H. R. McMaster oversaw the formulation of a new national security strategy in 2017. The document called on the United States to sustain favorable balances of power in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere by extending US influence and working closely with democratic partners in resisting authoritarian trends, countering radical ideologies, and deterring aggression.
Rudd concurred with the strategy, maintaining that the United States needs to work with China to build and manage “strategic guardrails” whereby their positions in five contested redlines—the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the North Korean Peninsula, and cyber and space—don’t evolve into conflict. He also advocated that the two countries continue to carve out cooperation in areas where their decisions would affect the global commons, including issues such as climate change, finance, infectious diseases, and nuclear weapons.
However, if indeed Beijing plans to take Taiwan by force within the decade, the US and its democratic allies should start helping now to build credible deterrence so that Xi reaches the conclusion that fulfilling this ambition would be too high a risk to impose on the CCP’s long reign over Chinese society.
“The first paragraph of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which every Chinese political leader has read, is, ‘War is a great matter of state, never to be undertaken lightly,’” Rudd recalled, drawing his own conclusion: “If you lose the war, you lose the state.”