Wars end in ceasefires, “grand concerts’, and realizations that they were avoidable, that they were cumulative upshot of reciprocal stupidities of belligerents. The Post-World War II period has not witnessed any war between major powers as they realize that how destructive a nuclear war would be. The potential belligerents nowadays enjoy armchair warfare blaming one another for hostile intentions.
The best way to analyze why war broke out in the first place is to interview the key warriors or belligerents. But, most of them stand perished in wars unable to tell their part of the story. As such, major powers rely on thinking templates like Thucydides Trap to create imaginary rivals to fit in the crucible of their templates.
Thucydides’ Trap comes about “when a rising power threatens to displace an established power. Graham Allison, in his Destined for War (page vii), says, ‘As a rapidly ascending China challenges America’s accustomed predominance, these two nations risk falling into a deadly trap first identified by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides…’
He explained: ‘It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable. Though key players may abhor wars “unexpected events by third parties or accidents that would otherwise be inconsequential or manageable, even ordinary flashpoints in foreign affairs, can act as sparks that trigger large-scale conflict.’ Thucydides trap could perhaps be rephrased as a stupidities trap.
The harsh outcomes of war
Arnold Toynbee once said,” history is something unpleasant that happens to other people”. Through their myopic decisions rulers sleepwalk into the vortex of war. They are sure that their enemies would perish if they both survived. Yet the outcomes are quite pungent.
Look at the outcomes of World War I (1914-18) and II (1939-45). When World War I ended in 1918, the Austro Hungarian Empire had vanished, the German Kaiser ousted, the Russian Tsar showed the door, France, Britain and so many other countries were left to mourn the loss of depletion of their treasuries and extinction of youth capital (scientists/engineers/doctors/teachers/intellectuals-to be).
At the end of World War II, Germany could not replace the United Kingdom. Two unexpected hegemons the erstwhile Soviet Union and the USA were born out of the womb of the war. The UK lost the fifty colonies that Hitler much talked about in his fiery speeches.
Before committing suicide, Hitler must have reminisced, “I was mistaken not to have thought about eliminating England as they were sons of a German tribe l’anglais who migrated to Britain due to vagaries of nature. I was a fool to have ventured into freezing Russia.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy rejected the dictum “better dead than Red”. Yet many of his decisions pushed closer and closer to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. During post-WWII, McCarthyism had blurred American vision so much that they saw red everywhere.
Classical versus Modern theory of conflict management
Thucydides trap takes a simplistic view of relations and conflicts between states. Thousands of years back Chanakya posited his mandal (interrelationships) doctrine.
One of his most misunderstood postulates is ‘all neighboring countries are actual or potential enemies’. So they have to be subdued.
Little attention is paid to another of his counter-balancing postulates, mandal (interrelationships) doctrine. In mandal, Chanakya thinks in terms of intersecting and just touching circles. He focuses on intersecting sections of two intersecting circles like in mathematical solution set theory.
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Even Kissinger, Kafka, et al, believed in establishing effective ‘spheres of influence’. Rich, powerful, and progressing countries could but would not shun their poor pals in the comity of nations.
History shows that weakness invites aggression. Often militarily strong countries have attacked weaker nations with ‘litany of problems’ on one pretext or another. The economic motive could be unearthed in both modern and ancient wars.
For instance, the Trojan War (1250 BC) was caused by an economic rivalry between Mycenae and Troy. Grants by Persia of good western Anatolian land to politically amenable Greeks, or to Iranians, created a casus belli for wars with rivals.
Yet all wars are justified by the now discarded Classical Theory of Conflict management and rejected by the Modern Theory of Conflict management.
According to modern theory of conflict management, terrorism or any conflict for that matter is not really caused by a few black sheep, as assumed under the Classical Theory of Conflict Management.
The Classical Theory says that “conflict is created by a black sheep. If he is eliminated the conflict is eliminated there and then”. The modern theory, on the contrary postulates “No matter what you do, conflict cannot be eliminated. It is natural to relations. However, through effort, it could be kept at its minimal point. And the minimal point is the optimal point”.
The fallacy of rising Dragon
It appears that Joe Biden is not a prisoner to Thucydides’ trap. He views rivalry with China as intense competition, not a confrontation. He calls the shots but then quickly defuses the situation.
For instance, to pacify furious China about “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, he dispatched USS Paul Jones into the Lakshadweep waters. The aim was to send the message that China need not fume and fret much about the Quad. The USA still thinks in terms of some principles.
Neither Sparta nor Athens was a nuclear power. If so, they would have perhaps preferred to remain engaged in a long period of the cold war. In the ancient Greek world, it was Athens that threatened Sparta. In the late 19th Century, Germany challenged Britain.
Today a rising China is believed to be challenging the United States. But, neither China nor the USA is structurally similar to Sparta or Athens. For ease of thinking, we liken the two states to either China or the USA.
Today’s China is more inspired by the Song dynasty which pushed economic progress through peace rather than wars like some other dynasties. China remarkably grew in terms of Gross Domestic Product, imports, exports, and reserves. But it still lags behind the USA.
China’s GDP of 7% as a percentage of the United States in 1980 rose to 61 % in 2015, imports from 8%to 73%, exports from 8% to 151%, and reserves from 16% to 3140%. Chinese economy doubled every seventh year. Still, it is no match for the USA.
Chinese workers have become more productive. Yet they are a quarter as productive as the American. China still lags behind the USA in major economic indicators. Look at Chinese economic size in terms of GDP: year 2000 ($ trillion 1.211), 2010 (($ trillion 6.101), 2016 (($ trillion 11.199).
Corresponding figures for the USA are: U.S. 2010 ($ trillion 10.285), 2011 ($ trillion 14.964), 2016 ($ trillion 18.624). GDP per capita ($) for the aforementioned years from 2010 to 2016: China 940. 4,340, 8,250. U.S. 36,070, 48,950, 56,810. Researchers in R&D (per million people) China: 547.3, 903, and 1176.6. Corresponding figures for the US: 3475.7, 3868.6, and 4232. R&D expenditure (% of GDP) China: 0.896, 1.71, and 2.066. U.S.: 2.617, 2.734, and 2.794.
True, China has been the fastest-growing economy since 1979. Yet, it is nowhere near surpassing the USA even on one account that is gross Domestic Product. Heretofore are China and US figures of economic growth for the years 1977, 1987, 1997, 2003, 2008, and 2019. China: China 843,097, 1,883,027, 3,706,647, 6,187,983, 8,908,894, (US$ trillion) 14.4. USA: USA: 3,868,829, 5,290,129, 7,109,175, 8,431,121, 9,485,136, and 21.44.
Engagement, not containment
Wars precede isolation. A benign corollary of Sino-US rivalry is that they are not isolating from one another but engaging in multi-dimensional economic relations.
Mr. Trump was viscerally predisposed to viewing China as a looming military threat to peripheral countries, in general, and the USA, in particular. True, Mr. Biden is also viewed as an America Firster.
Biden realizes that China is much behind the USA in economic and military prowess. China trails behind the USA in terms of expenditure on its defence forces and possession of actual military equipment.
Despite ongoing modernization, China spends approximately $ 5 billion in arms export far below US exports of about $ 46.5 billion. China’s sales are about three per cent of global sales while the USA’s are about 79 percent.
The US has over 8,000 operational and inactive warheads as against China’s 240 mostly non-deployed. The US has 2,000 nuclear weapons with strategic/intercontinental-range compared with China’s twenty. The US have sixteen ballistic missile submarines compared with China’s one, and more than 1000 US nuclear cruise missiles, compared with none for China.
The US has ten aircraft carriers plus one under construction attached to the Fifth and Seventh Fleet. China currently has two aircraft carriers, with a third in early construction, and a fourth planned for sometime in the mid-2020 or 2030s. Their first carrier, the Liaoning was commissioned by the PLAN in 2012, though it was first laid down in the early 1990s.
Shades of China’s critics
China critics in the USA are not monolithic. They have many shades including `Engagers’, `Realists’, `Duopolists’, ‘China Lead’, `Declinists’ and so on.
The ‘Critics’ have an un-reconcilable antipathy toward China because of its repression of a wide spectrum of human rights (religious, labour, media, and ethnic minority).
The ‘Engagers’ look for common ground with China as a matter of national interest. The ‘Engagers’ are optimistic that globalization, economic interdependence, and rules of multilateral trade will lead to democratisation in China.
‘Realist engagers’ are convinced that China has learnt lessons from the collapse of the former Soviet Union about the dangers of imperial overstretch. As such, China understands the realities of the current international system and limited capacity to change it.
‘China Duopolists’ believe the USA and China could cooperate to bring into being a Chimerica (G-2), being the two most important countries.
The ‘China lead’ school believes China is already on the verge of replacing the USA as the world’s number-one power.
The ‘Declinists’ believe that the demise of the US global leadership already occurred as the Washington consensus has been replaced. It is now Beijing, not Washington that is dictating new rules to govern the international economy.
Joseph Biden belongs to the ‘America Firster’ School that China can’t replace the USA as number-one, even if it tries to. After visiting China, Biden wrote `the United States has nothing to fear from China since it is far ahead of China in size of the economy, per capita income, scientific innovation, and educational excellence among other indicators.’
At present, China lacks the soft and hard power to supplant the USA. To do so, China needs to: (a) Command the loyalty of the majority of the countries. (b) Initiate, innovate and articulate policies, programs, and activities, including dispensing rewards and punishments. (c) Being a ‘model’, worth emulating, of values, culture, language, laws, and social and political practices. (d) Excel in soft-power resources such as educational and public-health systems
Thucydides traps is a China-bashing myth. Biden is a whiff of fresh air, though he has no magic wand to change the climate and trade atmosphere. He has promised to rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, spend more on health and education, and ease immigration. He has pledged to raise tax on firms and the wealthy.
He is no revolutionary though his policies are tilted to the left of what Trump did. His job is to re-unite fractious American democracy. He is inclined to shun the personalized style of his predecessor’s rule, scorning decency and truth.
Read more: Here’s how Biden should interact with China
Joe understands China better than his predecessor. But, it remains to be seen how the USA would set right the topsy-turvy alliances that Trump had interwoven. Confrontation with China will make it difficult for Biden to deliver his promises to the American electorate.
Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been writing freelance for over five decades. He has served the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan for 39 years. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies and magazines at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka et. al.). He is the author of eight e-books including The Myth of Accession. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.