Xi Jinping Wants To Emulate Mao, Thinks U.S. Will Back Down on Taiwan: Ex-Australia PM

Xi Jinping would achieve Mao Zedong-level status in the Chinese Communist Party by capturing Taiwan and aims to do so in the coming decade by outcompeting the U.S. military, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said.

Rudd, now president of the Asia Society in New York, published his thoughts in the upcoming March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, in which he calls the next 10 years "the decade of living dangerously."

Taiwan is among the flashpoints in the Asia-Pacific where Washington and Beijing are likely to clash in the 2020s. Chinese leader Xi is growing in confidence as senior policymakers in Beijing view the U.S. as a power in "irreversible decline," wrote Rudd.

Department of Defense reports have laid out Beijing's military ambitions in the coming decades, including its plan to turn the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a "world-class" modern fighting force capable of rivaling that of the U.S.—a milestone, Rudd said, is slated for 2027.

Taipei's own security analysis shows that the PLA seeks to lock the U.S. out of any Taiwan Strait conflict with the heavy use of anti-access/area denial—A2/AD—weaponry. Beijing's maritime claims and military operations in the East and South China Seas are part of that strategy.

Chinese officials, including Xi, have described Taiwan's "unification" with the mainland as among the country's core pursuits, but the Chinese leadership knows that a peaceful resolution to its "Taiwan problem" is now less likely than any time in the past 70 years, said Rudd, who was Australia's foreign minister under Prime Minister Julia Gillard and also served as a diplomat in Beijing in the 1980s.

"China has become more authoritarian under Xi, and the promise of reunification under a 'one country, two systems' formula has evaporated as the Taiwanese look to Hong Kong, where China has imposed a harsh new national security law, arrested opposition politicians, and restricted media freedom," he wrote.

By supplanting the U.S. military, at least in Asia, and exerting overwhelming military power in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing could make Washington back down from a war it thinks it will lose, said Rudd.

"Without U.S. backing, Xi believes, Taiwan would either capitulate or fight on its own and lose," the former PM wrote, adding that achieving the "paramount goal" of seizing Taiwan "would put [Xi] on the same level within the CCP pantheon as Mao Zedong."

Still, despite the Chinese leader's bullish ambitions, Rudd argues that decision-makers in Zhongnanhai face significant challenges, including Taiwan's own defensive capabilities—boosted in recent years by U.S. arms sales under former President Donald Trump—as well as the inevitable and "irreparable damage" to Chinese political legitimacy resulting from such a military campaign to capture democratic Taiwan.

Chief among Beijing's potential miscalculations, however, may be the unpredictable nature of the U.S.'s response in a Taiwan Strait contingency.

By predicting Washington would not fight a war it could not win, Beijing was "projecting its own deep strategic realism," said Rudd, citing the belief that an unsuccessful military campaign could result in the loss of American prestige and standing.

He added: "What China does not include in this calculus is the reverse possibility: that the failure to fight for a fellow democracy that the United States has supported for the entire postwar period would also be catastrophic for Washington, particularly in terms of the perception of U.S. allies in Asia, who might conclude that the American security guarantees they have long relied on are worthless—and then seek their own arrangements with China."

Another perspective to Rudd's argument—perceived legitimacy among voters—could be found in last summer's polling by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which asked the public to rate their backing for the U.S.'s hypothetical defense of Indo-Pacific allies including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

Respondents returned a mean score of 6.69 out of 10 for the defense of Taiwan, while Japan and South Korea scored 6.88 and 6.92, respectively, according to the CSIS poll.

By abolishing term limits, Chinese President Xi plans to stay in power until 2035, Rudd predicted in Foreign Affairs. The Chinese leader would be 82 and match the age of Mao's passing.

The biggest challenge to Xi's goals will come from America, and in the short-term from President Joe Biden and his administration. This includes experienced China experts in the State and Defense departments, but also in the intelligence service, Rudd said. Beijing also fears Biden's credible pronouncement to bring together the world's major democracies in order to balance China's growing influence in international bodies, as well as trade and technology.

It is for this reason that the Chinese leadership would have preferred a Trump re-election, Rudd argues, citing the former president's failures, especially in diplomacy, as areas Xi was able to exploit.

However, recent pronouncements by Washington and Beijing make clear that strategic competition between the world's two largest economies is unlikely to slow down under Biden, even if China tries to reduce tensions with the U.S. as a tactic, said Rudd.

"Biden intends to prove Beijing wrong in its assessment that the United States is now in irreversible decline," he wrote.

Rudd concludes by calling on the U.S. and China to draw up a framework for "managed strategic competition," a concept he said would be difficult in the current climate but not impossible.

Such an agreement would be "anchored in a deeply realist view of the global order" and require buy-in at the highest levels of government in Washington and Beijing, Rudd said.

It would include "hard limits" and concessions from both sides, he added, suggesting Washington should adhere more closely to Beijing's "one China" position and end diplomatic visits to Taipei.

In return, he said Beijing should reduce military activity in the Taiwan Strait and cease its militarization of islands in the South China Sea, where U.S. freedom of navigation operations might also be cut back.

Despite the many who might doubt the feasibility of such an arrangement, it was necessary in order to prevent a conflict or war, Rudd argued.

"Although such a framework would be difficult to construct, doing so is still possible—and the alternatives are likely to be catastrophic," he wrote. "It is better for both countries to operate within a joint framework of managed competition than to have no rules at all."

No military conflict in the Taiwan Strait by 2030 would be a key sign of success, Rudd said. The opposite would represent "the most demonstrable example of a failed approach," he added.

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File photo: Anti-landing spikes placed along the coast of Taiwan's Kinmen islands, which lie just 2 miles from the Chinese coast (in background) in the Taiwan Strait. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images