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Are the US and China ‘Destined for War’?

‘Over 500 years,’ writes Graham Allison, ‘in 16 cases a major rising power has threatened to displace a ruling power.’ So how’s that gone?

Crawford Kilian 4 Dec

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

What the hell are we going to do about China?

That question has troubled western governments from the 17th century to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, who now seems on the verge of freedom after reports that the U.S. is talking with her lawyers about a deal. If she admits she behaved badly, the Americans will give her a “deferred prosecution agreement,” she’ll be free to return to China, and presumably Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor will come home to Canada. If so, Chinese foreign relations — which in imperial times they used to call “barbarian management” — will have scored another success.

China has always been too big and rich to ignore; even its conquerors, like the Manchus, have been absorbed into it. The West enjoyed a bit more than a century when it could bully China, but that backfired spectacularly with the rise of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. After 30 years of internal convulsion, China truly stood up under Deng Xiaoping and began its climb back to world power by inventing capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

Under Xi Jinping, however, China’s rise has brought it into “Thucydides’s trap”: a dilemma first defined by the Greek historian during the disastrous Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens.

Sparta was the greatest (and nastiest) of Greek powers; Athens, a semi-democracy, was rising fast and bumping into Spartan interests all over the Mediterranean. The Spartans resented the Athenians’ aggressive expansion; the Athenians considered themselves held down by Sparta from reaching their proper place in the world. In the end, a long war saw Athens defeated (in part by a pandemic that killed thousands, including the Athenian leader Pericles).

“Over the past 500 years,” Graham Allison writes, “in 16 cases a major rising power has threatened to displace a ruling power. In 12 of those, the result was war. The four cases that avoided this outcome did so only because of huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions, on the part of challenger and challenged alike.”

Canada exists because of one of those adjustments: 19th-century Britain, the world superpower, saw the young United States rapidly exceed it in wealth and industrial might. In the 1850s, the notorious Pig War in the San Juan Islands could have caused an Anglo-American war that the Americans would have easily won. They would surely have taken much or all of British North America as their reparations, but London managed to cool things down. A later British prime minister reflected that his country’s last chance to break the rising U.S. had been the Civil War: had Britain sided with the Confederacy, the resulting divided America would have been far less of a threat.

Allison makes some very useful distinctions between China and the western empires that assailed it in the 19th century. A critical one: China had developed a complex culture over centuries but had no interest in exporting its social and political values. Other nations like Korea, Japan and Vietnam might adopt some of those values, but the Chinese didn’t impose them.

Missionaries for democracy (and opium)

The Europeans, by contrast, were “missionary” cultures, determined to convert other nations to Christianity and to make them economically and politically subordinate. The British bought a lot of Chinese tea, but they wanted China to accept everything from British textiles to opium as payment for it. Now we buy everything from rubber ducks to iPhones from China, but we’re still trying to impose our vision of democracy and human rights on the Chinese.

Allison cites Lee Kuan Yew, the authoritarian father of modern Singapore, who dismisses the idea of China becoming democratic: “If it were to do so, it would collapse.” Lee also said that China will insist on “being accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West.”

In China, Allison tells us, government legitimacy springs from competence, not from votes. The Chinese Communist Party has good reason to consider itself the most competent government the country has ever seen, and after four years of Trump, Xi Jinping’s opinion of the competence of American democracy is unlikely to improve. Allison notes that “the U.S. has lost, or at least failed to win, four of the five major wars it has entered since World War II.” American military might is therefore no deterrent to China’s military planners.

We can’t seem to live with China, or without it. We’re reduced to loud disapproval of Beijing and verbal sniping about the plight of the Uighurs and the two Michaels, while we still buy Chinese-made iPhones that contain Chinese-mined rare earths. Meanwhile, China has just joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a 15-nation free-trade pact involving a third of the world’s population and including Australia and New Zealand. China can still trade with the U.S. and Canada, but it doesn’t have to. It wields strong influence in Africa and Latin America through economic aid and loans.

The absurdity of war

Fighting a war with China, then, is as absurd as Britain fighting a war with Germany in 1914, when the countries were economically tangled with each other. But war happened then, and it could happen now — not, Allison argues, because either side wants one, but because each sees the other as capable of fighting a war and therefore posing an existential threat. But because China is too big to fail, it is also too big to fight.

To escape Thucydides’s trap, Allison suggests four “core ideas” for the West:

1. Define our vital interests.

Are we ready to die so the American Navy can cruise through the South China Sea? Or to guarantee Taiwan’s independence and Hong Kong’s freedom of speech?

2. Understand what China is trying to do.

A deal and a detente both depend on knowing what the Chinese consider their national interests. "In high-stakes relationships,” Allison says, “predictability and stability — not friendship — matter most.” The Chinese are calling for “co-operative competition” with the U.S. We may be able to set the terms of that competition: Beijing currently seems to think anyone of Chinese descent, anywhere in the world, is to some extent a member of the People’s Republic. But Xi might abandon this racist position for the sake of a deal.

3. Do strategy.

So far, U.S. strategy is just to hang on to the power it gained at the end of the Second World War. That’s hard to do when China is gaining economic supremacy. Allison argues for a new generation of wise diplomats like George F. Kennan, who framed the containment strategy that eventually ended the Soviet Union. But we should also recall how the Soviet Union’s fall surprised us, and plan to follow up on a successful long game.

4. Make domestic challenges central.

Allison argues that the Americans’ top priority should be repairing their own political disarray and division, while the Chinese need to establish the rule of law independent of the Communist Party, and to end “cultural habits that limit imagination and creativity.” A return to “traditional mandarin virtues in a government with a strong leader” could, he says, end modern Chinese materialism and the corruption it inspires.

Allison’s arguments are often persuasive, but they are based on insights that seem a little too clear and simple. Neither China nor the West can be reduced to a phrase like “traditional mandarin values” or “missionary cultures.” The strategists on both sides will have to be capable of more complex thought than that.

They will also have to bear in mind that Sparta may have beaten Athens in the Peloponnesian War. But Alexander the Great soon overwhelmed all the Greek city-states and made them part of his empire.

Whether Meng Wanzhou stays in Vancouver or goes home, she and the two Michaels are mere pawns in a great game soon to become obsolete.

The old rules of barbarian management are broken for good. Whoever “wins” the present conflict will find themselves caught in a much deadlier trap than that of Thucydides: the catastrophe of climate change gone past the point of no return.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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