In “The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the United States and Xi Jinping’s China,” Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia and longtime China scholar, imagines 10 separate plots, many revolving around the fate of Taiwan. For example, what if China tries to take the island by force and Washington chooses not to respond? That would be America’s “Munich moment,” Rudd writes, erasing any American moral authority. Even worse would be the United States reacting with military force but then losing the battle, which would “signal the end of the American century.” Half of the scenarios in his book, notes Rudd, “involve one or another form of major armed conflict.” And he is the most dovish of fate.
An extended war story is found in “2034,” a work of fiction written by Elliot Ackerman, a novelist and former Marine special operations officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former supreme allied commander. of NATO. Released in 2021, “2034,” is basically a beach read about how we get to nuclear war. The authors imagine an apparently random confrontation in the South China Sea between a flotilla of American destroyers and a Chinese trawler carrying high-tech spy equipment, which in a few months escalates into a world war that leaves major cities in ashes, tens of millions. of dead people and neither Washington nor Beijing is responsible. One of the main characters, a Chinese official with deep American ties, remembers taking a class at Harvard, “a seminar pompously titled The History of War taught by a Hellenophile professor.” If it’s a dig at the ubiquitous Allison, it might also work as an homage, because in “2034,” China and the United States are captured by Thucydides.
In “The Avoidable War,” Rudd warns that the incentives for Beijing and Washington to escalate hostilities, whether to save lives or save face, “could prove irresistible.” Ackerman and Stavridis follow that script. In their novel, a recklessly unsympathetic American national security adviser – with the perfect surname Wisecarver – and a smug overconfident Chinese defense minister keep going until cities like San Diego and Shanghai are no more and India emerges as a global power, both in terms. of its military capabilities and its mediation authority. (The UN Security Council is even moving from New York to New Delhi.) “This conflict has not felt like a war—at least not in the traditional sense—but rather a series of escalations,” declares an influential former Indian official near the end of the novel. . “That’s why my word is ‘tragic,’ not ‘inevitable.’ A tragedy is a disaster that could otherwise have been avoided.”
According to these accounts, the prognosis for tragedy is favorable. Allison sees the rise of Chinese nationalism under President Xi Jinping as part of the long-term project to avenge China’s “century of humiliation”, from the First Opium War to the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and to restore the supreme rank of the country . Both the United States and China view themselves in exceptional terms, Allison explains, as nations of destiny. Washington aims to support the Pax Americana, while China believes that the so-called rules-based international order is just code for the US to make rules and China to follow orders – an oppressive scheme to contain and sabotage China’s reclaimed national greatness.
The extent and durability of that greatness is a matter of disagreement in these books. Allison claims that the economic balance of power has “tilted so dramatically in China’s favor” that American claims to continued hegemony are unrealistic. But Brands and Beckley, writing five years later, see an average Middle Kingdom, a nation that despite its “sabre-rattling” (a must-do in foreign policy tomes) is threatened by enemies abroad and an aging population and faltering economy at home. “China will be a declining power much sooner than most people think,” Brands and Beckley state. “Where others see rapid Chinese growth, we see massive debt and Soviet inefficiency. Where others see gleaming infrastructure, we see ghost towns and bridges to nowhere. Where others see the world’s largest population, we see a looming demographic catastrophe.”