Why Beijing and Washington will avoid ‘Thucydides Trap’

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The United States and China are unlikely to fall into the “Thucydides Trap”, in which a rising power challenges an existing one to have a “piece of the pie.” Conditions are very different from those that led to such wars in the past.

In the first place, both countries possess weapons of mass destruction that could lead to mutual assured destruction (MAD). Second, past antagonists’ economies were not as intertwined as those of the US and China.

Third, China is not challenging US global hegemony, but is determined to safeguard its national interests and follow an ideology and development path different from those of the US and its allies. Fourth, successive US presidents follow a China policy very different from their campaign rhetoric.

Fifth, anti-China rhetoric is increasingly discredited in the US, particularly among the young.

China-US economic relationship

Never in human history have two major economies been so intertwined as those of the US and China. They are each other’s biggest trade partners, with two-way trade estimated at US$580 billion in 2016 and growing.

Two-way investments are rising, in that Chinese investment exceeded $45 billion and that of the US in China was nearing the same number last year. What’s more, increasing numbers of US executives, state governors and mayors of major cities are traveling to China looking for investment and trade opportunities. The huge and growing Chinese market, according to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, cannot be ignored.

Relative political stability, advanced technology and management methods, and an affluent market are big attractions for investors – and they would have invested even more had it not been for a paranoid US Congress’ concern over “national security.” It set up a special commission mainly to scrutinize investments from China, sending a message to Chinese investors that they are not welcome.

Military reality

The reality is that a war against China would come with an unimaginably high price and which no one could win. China is now far stronger than it was in the 1950s. Since then, China has been catching up fast: building new stealth jet fighters, drones, missiles, submarines and other weaponry at rapid rates.

The latest development is the Dongfeng-41 missile, which can carry up to 10 nuclear warheads and has a range of 14,000 kilometers, allowing it to hit any US city. Though it is still behind the US in firepower, China could inflict serious losses of human lives and property in the US if attacked.

Graham Allison, a Harvard University scholar, was correct when he wrote in his new book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? that both countries should do everything possible to avoid war. A China-US military conflict would no have no winners, only destruction and despair for both sides and every nation in between.

Policy reversals

Bashing China is a sure way of getting votes in US election campaigns because a lot of Americans have negative opinions about the Asian giant. But once elected, the winner typically makes a U-turn. Bill Clinton, for example, accused incumbent George H W Bush of coddling tyrants while campaigning for the US presidency, but he quickly improved relations with the Chinese “tyranny” after being elected.

Donald Trump is no exception, further upgrading the US-China economic and strategic dialogues first introduced by George W Bush and upgraded by Barack Obama.

China critics may not believe their own rhetoric

The anti-China crowd may not believe the rhetoric it propagates because these critics are highly educated and accomplished analysts, journalists and scholars. For example, it is difficult to surmise that Peter Navarro, a Harvard-educated economics professor at the University of California, Irvine and now Trump’s trade czar, actually believes what he wrote in his 2011 book Death by China, accusing China of stealing more than 25 million US jobs and closing 50,000 factories.

Besides, how can China, or any country for that matter, steal US jobs? American consumers have a choice whether to buy Chinese products, and US companies have a choice whether to invest in or relocate production to China.

The anti-China crowd cannot blame the problems of the US on China. It was US American businesses’ decisions that “hollowed out” factories and automation that destroyed many manufacturing jobs. Indeed, automation is spilling over to the services sectors (such as bank machines), leading to more job losses. Whom will the anti-China crowd blame then?

Anti-China, anti-US credibility diminishing

In any event, the anti-China crowd’s credibility appears to be waning. According to a US-based Pew opinion poll, around 55% of Americans between the ages of 19 and 34 view China positively and do not consider it an economic or military threat. Perhaps having visited or worked in China, and having been exposed to alternative news sources, they see the country differently from their fathers and grandfathers, most of whom probably never set foot in or know anything about China.

The Pew poll found a similar picture in China. More than 55% of those who have visited, studied in or worked in the United States have a positive view of the country. For the most part, they find Americans friendly and helpful and in many ways  sharing similar aspirations and hopes.

The number of Americans and Chinese visiting, studying and working in each other’s countries will likely surge. According to the US-based Institute of International Education, the number of Americans studying in China rose from 6,300 to 12,800 from 2005 to 2015. That number is likely to grow because the US government is encouraging more of its young people to visit, study in or work in China. Meanwhile, more 300,000 Chinese study in the US each year. Like their American counterparts, the majority view the US positively.

Having been exposed to each other’s culture, values and customs, young Americans and Chinese see themselves as having more in common than differences. The vast majority of people on both sides of Pacific are trying to make enough income to provide themselves and families a better life. Since the young are the future, one can be cautiously optimistic that better US-China relations might be in the offing.

No reason for US-China war

There is no reason for the US or China to fall into the “Thucydides Trap.” Neither government is threatening the other nor is it in their interest to do so. Whether one believes it or not, China has always called for cooperation, preferring to work with rather than challenging US hegemony.

Further, there is no reason for the US to attack China and indeed it seems to recognize the benefits of a cooperative relationship. Trump’s 100-day plan that he forged with Xi Jinping at his Florida resort is bearing fruit, with the signing of more than US$250 billion worth of deals for US businesses and securing Chinese cooperation in reining in North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development program.

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