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The Thucydides Trap
The protracted trade war between China and the U.S. can be explained under the concept of the Thucydides Trap. Two and a half millennia ago, Thucydides, an Athenian historian and political scientist, chronicled a formidable account of the Peloponnesian War that occurred between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC. It recounts the undercurrents of the skirmishes between the two battling Greek powers. At that time, Sparta was dominating in the Peloponnesian Peninsula, while Athens was strengthening its empire by becoming an unnerving maritime power in Greece.
The ruling supremacy of Spartans felt a reckoning force in the form of rising Athens that inspired fear in Sparta. According to Thucydides, loss of necessary trust proved to be a catalyst in their inferno. This adverse relationship between Athens and Sparta is implicated in the current relationship of China and the U.S. respectively, in order to define the trajectory of their future discourse.
Athens, being primarily the traders, provided maritime security in exchange for the exploitation of resource, is equated with China in the current scenario. On the other hand, Sparta, mainly focused on maintaining territorial hegemony and security over the Peloponnesian territory, is likened to the United States. The escalation theory of Thucydides describes that when a dominant power sees its supremacy threatened by another rising force, the paranoia leads the former to engage in military combat with the latter.
The Cycle Continues
Thucydides elucidates that the motivation behind war is fear, honor, and self-interest. These underline the prospects of miscalculation and emotional breakdown which turns a healthy competition into animosity and, in effect, war. According to the ‘Destined for War’ analysis completed by the Harvard professor, Graham Allison, the inevitability of the conflict between the U.S. and China is suggested, citing his research work spanning over 500 years.
His research concludes that 12 out of 16 times the tensions between the ruling and aspiring power led them, eventually, to war. In contrast to that, he stressed that the remaining four times are what global powers need to contemplate upon in their future diplomatic discourses. Out of these remaining 4, one is the alignment with the British ideology in post-WWII with the American optimism, as the former was dominant and the latter formed political clout post-WWII.
The remaining three times were in the cold war period where USSR’s economic back was already strenuous due to domestic failures, and the nuclear edge on both sides swooned the prospects of outgrown war. The most recent example of Thucydides Trap quoted in his profound analysis is the discourse adopted by the then world powers that led to World War I.
Professor Graham recorded that Germany was expanding its military prowess, which terrified Britain as its supremacy was being challenged. The nature of its danger was spelled out in 1907 in a note by Eyre Crowe, a British foreign official. Despite several dissents from Germany’s side, the two powers eventually led themselves to war seven years later.
Following the nature of the events being played out between the Greek cities, one can deduce the same order of events between China and the U.S. in contemporary times. In the post-Great Recession of 2008-09, the U.S. sought to reverse the economic rise of China. Permeating into the realms of economic, political, and military, the U.S. rivalry with China unfolded a huge ‘Tectonic Shift’ in the global balance of power.
Trade War Between China and the U.S.
The following chronological order may uncover the true picture of the insinuating Cold War 2.0. In 2010, the U.S. positioned itself towards the Asia-Pacific region by launching the Asia-pivot policy. The policy seemed successful in regaining the trust of its allies in the region, who are also the enemies of China, and to maintain its presence there. The policy shifted into Rebalancing Asia Policy in 2012 that was directed in containing China’s spread in the region.
Through this policy, the U.S. activated the Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea and exploited the skirmishes between China and its neighbors in order to weaken its diplomatic position in the ASEAN region. In May 2015, former U.S. Secretary of Defense called on China to halt its military operations in the islands of the South China Sea.
China’s military installations on the disputed Spratly Islands were projected as an offensive to the neighboring countries which, too, claimed their rights on the same islands. Similarly, in the rift with Japan over the Senkaku Islands since 1895 and with the Philippines, where the Arbitration Tribunal accepted the jurisdiction over some part of the contested islands, China refutes the arbitral procedure which portrays China’s hegemonic designs in the region.
On a similar note to the UN Secretary-General, Beijing claimed its sovereignty over the disputed islands and the importance of the 9-dash line in the South China Sea by battling rivals’ claims to the coastal zones. In the cyberspace and electronic warfare spectrum, China created the Strategic Support Force against the U.S. counterpart, Cyber Command Centre, in 2015 proactively responding to the cyber-attacks of the United States.
The U.S. had accused China of stealing the U.S. plans of the F-35 military aircraft. Upon the same occasion, the former FBI director also lambasted China for the hacking of U.S. companies’ data, mentioning that ‘those that have been hacked and those that will be’. Back in February 2016, the U.S. accused China of installing surface-to-surface air missiles on Woody Island upon which China riposted that the development was made in the wake of active American navy patrols that may deem to be a security threat to the sovereignty of China.
Tenuous Trade Link
On the economic front, the U.S. reduced China’s power by establishing a free trade zone called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asia-Pacific states to combat China in the region. Coming into office, Trump pulled the U.S. out of TPP and exploited India through promulgating its Indo-Pacific Policy to contain China. In the first half of 2018, giving a hard time to China’s trade, the U.S. laid tariffs on $50 billion worth of imports from China. China swiftly replicated by imposing tariffs on $50 billion worth of U.S. products. The mediation was to be in motion but nothing came out of it.
Instead, the U.S. criticized China for ‘ripping off’ the former, while China termed U.S. endeavors as ‘trade bullying’ efforts. This did not stop the U.S. from convincing Canada to apprehend the Chief Financial Officer of China’s technology giant, Huawei. Meng Wenzhou and her Huawei were dragged into an abyss of committing fraud and violation of trade sanctions against Iran. In retaliation, China detained two Canadian citizens for their alleged undermining of China’s national security.
Few months into the end of 2018, Trump hurled 10% tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese products. In the same month, with a difference of a few days, China imposed a 10% tariff on $60 billion worth of U.S. goods. Keeping its skirmishes abreast, the U.S. expected China to give in. However, China did not want to cool its erstwhile humiliation at the hands of rulers who deposed their cultural imperialism.
China’s historical and cultural legacy demands its governance to conduct international relations in such a way that reflect upon their preconceived concept of tian xia, which means that everything ‘under the heavens’ belongs to the Chinese Empire. This legacy was re-endorsed by current China’s Premier, Xi Jinping, under whom Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was started. In the wake of its announcement, the U.S. proactively pressurized its allies to not participate.
To provoke China into any misdemeanor that might derail its glory, President Trump raised tariff percentage from 10 to 25 on the same $200bn worth of Chinese products in May 2019. China took a calculated attempt in a few days’ time; in June 2019, it rebounded upon the U.S. with the same percentage increase on the same $60bn worth of American goods. China did not seem to have the intention to back out of the trade war and neither did the U.S. President.
Cyberwar, Hong Kong, and Covid-19
The U.S. President banned U.S. tech companies from using any foreign telecom equipment that might be used against the state’s national interests and security in the form of espionage. Thereafter, Trump designated the People’s Bank of China as a ‘currency manipulator’ for its alleged depreciation of China’s Yuan so that its exports seem cheaper. On 2nd August 2019, President Trump decided to levy 10% duty on another $300 billion worth of Chinese goods.
This was one of the sheer bouts propelled on the Chinese economy by Trump’s administration. Similarly, in another event to enroll its animosity against China, the U.S. signed the Hong Kong Human rights and Democracy Act in 2019 to support political unrest in Hong Kong that was directed against China’s authoritarian policies. Since 1997, China got Hong Kong back from Britain as a Special Administrative Region where it can wield its authority.
This special status is due to remain in Hong Kong till 2047 under the ‘One China Two Systems’ policy. This was largely refuted by both the U.S. and the citizens of Hong Kong. With respect to the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. hurled firm rebuke against China for spreading this virus, with President Trump terming it as the ‘Chinese virus’.
Countering it, China blamed its origin on the U.S. military for bringing it into the Chinese region, Wuhan, in the first place. China considers it as the U.S.’s conniving scheme to derail Chinese legitimacy in the world. On the other hand, Trump accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of being too biased towards China and hence, terminated America’s funding for WHO.
In the recent expulsion of American journalists from China’s soil, the U.S. retreated on the Hong Kong deal, while Beijing upheld a new national security law in Hong Kong. Following this, both powers closed down their multiple consulates as diplomatic tensions soared. In the latest development, the U.S. Department of Defense has released a report, Military Security Development involving the People’s Republic of China 2020.
This report vividly warns the world of Chinese military buildup, developments, and future goals that would have serious implications for the U.S. national interests and the security of the international order which is set on democratic and western ideologies. The report unfolds that China has fifty-seven more warships and submarines than the United States, with its advanced precision capabilities.
Also, China has land-based cruise and ballistic missiles that, if used against anyone, would lead to unprecedented results. Furthermore, it elaborates that China has long-range surface-to-air systems in place. China has condemned the facets of this report for being a ‘wanton distortion’ of China’s aims and hence, deliberated the U.S. as an entity of global unrest while citing U.S. endeavors in the Middle East.
Apart from this report, it has been reported that China had converted thousands of its merchant ships for military use and developed a ‘carrier killer’ missile specifically to sink U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific region. Also, it has been reported that China has tested hypersonic glide vehicles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads for striking on U.S. territory, and stealthy submarines armed with ballistic missiles to sabotage U.S. submarines if the latter attempted to threaten the Chinese navy.
China’s increase in its military budget by 10% is empirically conducive to contemplate that the tensions between the two economic powers have escalated to the extent that only the two can ‘bully’ each other. In the realm of economics, in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), the GDP of China has surpassed that of the U.S. since 2015. This seems to be a threatening force for the U.S. as the post-Cold War world hegemon.
Although the U.S. has ballooned its military budget along with its war games in the Pacific to contain China, the resurgence of China will mean tragedy to the U.S.’s hegemonic designs. According to Thucydides, countries go to war when their respective strategies, to exercise their power for their national interests or to fulfill their chauvinistic fantasies, become misaligned with the expectations that are brewing in their domestic arena.
He stressed that harmonized sentiments in domestic politics would help countries tread carefully in their foreign affairs. However, both China and the U.S. are facing tremendous pressures in their domestic environments; since China has seen resistance against its authoritarian rule in its east coast and rural hinterland, it becomes obvious for the nations getting dragged into taking emotional and miscalculated steps. But as the world has shifted to virtual reality, a lot has changed.
In this novel scene, economics and technology have taken over politics and the conventional military world. The digital skirmishes, intelligence activities, sabotage, cyber warfare, and other virtual hot points have appeared on the world spectrum, which will be potential flag points for two economic titans to go to war. It is not a doomsday scenario but these unprecedented developments will shove the two economic giants to war.
In these contemporary times, both, China and the U.S., expect world leaders to choose sides. Mismanagement on both sides will receive unmanageable repercussions. Hence this imminent global power shift requires great skills on both sides to avoid any conflagration because if the careful path is not adopted immediately, results will, nonetheless, be like Doomsday.
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