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Inflection Points Today April 18, 2024

China and ‘the decade of living dangerously’

By Frederick Kempe

We interrupt this week’s focus on Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel, and concerns regarding Israel’s response—and our related focus on whether the US House will approve funding to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia before it’s too late—to remind readers not to lose their focus on the complex issue of “integrated deterrence” as it relates to China and Taiwan.

The challenge for the Biden administration and its allies is that they can’t cherry-pick. The issues are interrelated. Lack of determination in defending Ukraine will inevitably signal to China that Taiwan is fair game. At the same time, the bilateral challenge that’s likely to define our times is the US-China one.

With that as context, read an important recent speech by one of the world’s leading China experts, Kevin Rudd, formerly Australia’s prime minister and currently its ambassador to Washington. Delivered last week at the US Naval Academy, it was his first extended lecture as ambassador, and it is a must read.

He argues that, notwithstanding the stabilization of the US-China relationship since last November’s summit between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in San Francisco, nothing has changed in terms of Chinese strategic intentions toward Taiwan.

“Specifically on Taiwan,” says Rudd, “it has been made plain through Xi’s statements that national reunification must be achieved by the time China’s national rejuvenation is to be complete, namely 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.”

That might seem a long way off in our short-attention-span culture, but “if a relatively low-cost opportunity arose,” says Rudd, “Xi could be minded to seek to secure Taiwan’s return within his own political tenure.”

For the record, Xi, who is now seventy years old, had himself named to a precedent-breaking third five-year term as party general secretary in October 2022, which by my calculations means he might well want to swallow Taiwan whole before the end of 2027.

Rudd concludes that Chinese leaders are calculated risk-takers over Taiwan, and not reckless risk-takers. It follows that Xi will only back off his historic intentions toward Taiwan during his current term if he concludes, in Rudd’s words, that “it is still too risky to embark upon unilateral military action against Taiwan.”

No wonder Rudd refers to the period ahead as “the decade of living dangerously.”

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter: @FredKempe.

This edition is part of Frederick Kempe’s Inflection Points Today newsletter, a column of quick-hit insights on a world in transition. To receive this newsletter throughout the week, sign up here.

Further reading

Image: ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Apr. 10, 2024) Ambassador Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, gives an address on The Honorable Stanley Legro to guests at the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC) in Mahan Hall. (US Navy photo by Stacy Godfrey)