Heading for Thucydides’s Trap
Thucydides’s concerns were recently echoed by Graham Allison in his book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” An outcome of a decade-long research project, Allison’s book drew similarities between the rise of China against the United States and that of Athens against Sparta and warned, “China and the US are currently on a collision course for war—unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it.”
Although Allison believes that a war between the United States and China is not inevitable and that Thucydides’s claim about inevitability of war between a ruling and a rising power was an exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis, I disagree. I rather argue that the various developments in the US-China bilateral relationship, in the last six years, ring the alarm bells: extreme danger ahead. Both the countries are heading to a point of no return and the bitterness between the two rivals has permeated into the realms of economics, politics, society and military.
The developments in the two powers’ relationship in the past six years are dangerous and the future course appears more pernicious. I, therefore, contend that war between the two is inevitable, albeit not in the traditional sense and not on their own soils. Trade war is one such example of how novel ways can be adopted to undermine each other. However, the United States being the initiator of the trade war, vividly shows how the rise of China has instilled fear in the US administrations and unless both the parties take difficult actions, other types of war, including proxy wars, are inevitable.
Taking the readers chronologically through the developments of the past six years will substantiate my argument. The relationship between Washington and Beijing has been deteriorating since May 2014 when the US Department of Justice indicted five Chinese hackers for their alleged ties to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on charges of stealing trade technology from some US companies. China retaliated by suspending its cooperation in the US-China cyber security working group.
A year later, in May 2015, Ashton Carter, the then-US Secretary of Defense, called on China to halt controversial land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. US officials claimed that they had evidence of China installing military equipment on a chain of artificial islands in the Sea. Satellite images showed that China was developing land on the controversial Subi Reef in the Northern Spratly Islands. Subi Reef is claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. China refuted the allegations by claiming that the construction was for civilian purposes.
Going into 2016 and with Trump’s entry into the White House, things at best could be described as moving from bad to worse. With just about a year into his office, Trump announced sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports worth more than $50 billion for allegedly stealing US technology and intellectual property. China responded with retaliatory measures on a range of US products. It did not take long for the trade war to escalate. In July 2018, the Trump administration imposed a 25 percent import tax on more than 800 Chinese products. China had to respond with tariffs on more than 500 US products. The US administration used phrases such as China is “ripping off” the US. While China lambasted the Trump administration’s moves as “trade bullying.”
In late 2018, any efforts to improve the aggravating situation suffered a severe blow when the US Vice President, Mike Pence, clearly indicated that the US would prioritize competition over cooperation by using tariffs to combat the Chinese economic aggression. He was vociferous against Chinese military aggression in the South China Sea, increased censorship and religious persecution by the Chinese government. China denounced Pence’s speech as “groundless accusations.”
Developments remained on a perilous trajectory when Canada arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer on a US request in December 2018. Meng Wanzhou and her company Huawei were alleged to have committed fraud and violation of trade sanctions against Iran. As a tit-for-tat move, China detained two Canadian citizens accusing them of undermining China’s national security. Later, Huawei also sued the United States for banning US federal agencies from using its equipment.
In May 2019, the trade war worsened as the US raised tariffs from 10 to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods with an expectation that this huge step would “force China to make a favourable deal.” China also increased tariffs on $60 billion worth of American goods and termed the US expectations as “extravagant.” Targeting Huawei, Trump also banned US companies from using foreign-made telecommunications equipment that could threaten the US interests. A couple of months later, Trump administration designated China as “currency manipulator” when People’s Bank of China let its yuan devalue significantly.
Serious conflicts did not remain confined to the economic front, and crept into political domain as well. The US signed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in 2019, supporting the political unrest in Hong Kong which is currently run as a Special Administrative Region of China. Since 1997, when China took it back from Britain, HKSAR is being governed by China under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy which will remain in force till 2047. China retaliated the US move by imposing sanctions on some US-based organizations and suspended US warships from visiting Hong Kong.
The most recent clash of the titans is in the social and public health domain. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, accusations have been levelled by both against each other with China claiming that the virus was brought to China by the US military and Trump calling it “Chinese virus.” Trump also accused the World Health Organization of being biased towards China, and stopped funding of the organization.
The developments in 2020 have been too fast and too serious to ignore. Tensions have soared as China expelled American journalists, Trump ended Hong Kong’s special status after Beijing passed a new national security law and both countries closed several consulates as diplomatic tensions escalated, culminating into US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks that the era of engagement with the Chinese Communist Party is over.
Adding fuel to the fire, the US Department of Defense in early September released a report titled, ‘Military Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020.’ The report warns that Chinese military developments and goals would have ‘serious’ implications for the US national interest and the security of the international order. The report talks about the areas where Chinese military has overtaken the US; for example, in navy where it has at least 57 more submarines and warships than the United States. It further shows that China has built a massive arsenal of land-based ballistic and cruise missiles and has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems.
China has called the report a “wanton distortion” of China’s aims, and the US the biggest threat to the world peace. Colonel Wu Qian, the Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, labelled the United States as the fomenter of regional unrest and destroyer of world peace citing US actions on Iraq, Syria and Libya as examples which killed and displaced millions.
This latest development on the military front may have very serious implications for the world peace. I am not portraying a doomsday scenario here; rather, I would like to bring these unprecedented developments in the US-China relationship to the fore so that the world at large may collectively strategize and prevent the two powers from further locking horns. The entire world has a stake in the US-China relationship especially when a tectonic shift in the global power is taking place from the West to the East. Can we prevent them from falling into Thucydides’s trap?
The author is a civil servant presently pursuing a doctorate in technology and innovation policy