Are China and the US stepping in the Thucydidean Trap?


Emerging rivals

Since the early 1990s, China has embarked on the path to political, economic and strategic ascendancy and regional hegemony, though its doctrine is embedded in peace and good neighborliness. During the past decade and a half, China has acquired enough economic power and military muscle to stand out as an emerging superpower to the awe and fear of its neighbours in East Asia and surrounding regions of the Pacific and South Asia. This economic and military rise of a regional state is deemed as a direct threat to the hegemony of the sole superpower.

According to the Greek historian, Thucydides, a dominant power never allows a competitive state to become powerful enough to challenge its dominance and contains its political, economic and military influence. This intensive contest for dominance results in the ultimate clash between the dominant power and the rising state. This is termed as the Thucydidean trap. Are China and the US gradually heading towards this trap, or will sanity prevail?

We have to examine the rise of China in historic perspective. China concentrated on becoming an economic power to reckon with, putting its political, ideological and territorial disputes with other countries on the backburner and displaying patience and restraint in international affairs. This journey started from Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of 1979 and continued with more liberal economic policies under successive leaders. The objective was to realise the economic potential of the country. Within a decade or so, the world started witnessing dividends of this focused economic development. Today, China has the second highest GDP of over $11.9 trillion. It is estimated that the Chinese economy, if all circumstances remain the same, will take over that of the US in the coming decade or so.

Over the past two decades, China silently achieved the most enviable position of becoming the top trading partner of the East Asian countries signing regional economic deals that included free trade agreements with Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) and others. All such deals excluded the US. The past few years witnessed China building institutional infrastructure to add to its influence at the expense of the US dominated International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Japanese-led Asian Development Bank. In 2014, China, coopting BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa – created $100 billion New Development Bank, and the following year, set up $100-billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which has been joined by some 80 countries. The US tried in vain to prevent its allies in the East Asia and Pacific from joining the bank. However, 8 countries of East Asia and Pacific joined it within the first two years defying the American diktat. This was a great rebuke to the US and reflected its declining influence in the region.

Budding superpower
Chinese economy

Following these financial institutions, comes the Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to interconnect over 60 countries from East Asia and Pacific to South Asia, Central and Caucasian regions to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The Initiative envisages development of interconnecting roads and railways for overland transportation and a string of seaports to facilitate shipment of commercial goods, at a cost of over $1trillion. BRI promises financial assistance and investment in regional communication and agricultural infrastructure and natural resources.

The military organisation and doctrine of China has aggravated concerns of regional countries. The People’s Liberation Army has adopted the doctrine of ‘anti-access, area denial’ to keep its shores and airspace cleared of US military intrusion. It has built the region’s largest coast guard and controls a vast militia of civilian fishing vessels. China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 just miles away from a US base and it is likely to build more bases along African East Coast and Indian Ocean in the coming years as is emphasised by US National Security Advisor John Bolton. In South China Sea, it has developed over half a dozen islands that house air force bases, missile shelters, and radar and communication facilities. The US is concerned about the tremendous expansion of Chinese air defenses. The Americans apprehend that China has the ability of striking their naval vessels and posing an increased missile threat to their air bases and ports.

China has not only expanded its trade and investments in East Asia or South Asian and Central and Caucasian regions, it has also entrenched itself in Africa and Latin America. The Chinese trade with the African continent and Latin America is estimated in each region at over $300 billion annually. The flow of finances from China to Africa has been just fabulous and much of it has not been aid. From 2000 to 2014, Chinese financing to Africa peaked at $122billion dwarfing the US finances of $106.7billion. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has termed about 40% of this huge amount as financial aid. ‘Most of Chinese money comes in the form of loans, many of which are for projects being built by Chinese state-owned companies. The contracts have strict conditions attached to them; the borrowers have to start repaying the loans within a few years unlike the World Bank loans which have a grace period of a decade’, says Aiddata, a research centre in Virginia. The strong presence of China in Latin America is more irritating for the US officials than other regions.

The rapid rise in economic power of modern China strikes the countries of East Asia and Pacific as an unfailing reminder of Imperial China’s regional hegemony. The Imperial China, until the nineteenth century, completely swayed East Asia by sheer force of its economic and military power. The modern China has also been employing its soft and hard power to protect its interests in this Hobbesian world. Beijing recently punished a Japanese and South Korean business conglomerate, Lotte, closing 80% of its supermarkets for selling land for deployment of THAD (Terminal High Altitude Defense) system which China considers a threat to its strategic position and barred tourist groups for visits to South Korea. It stopped export of rare earth minerals to Japan after a ship collision in 2009. Beijing banned Norwegian fish imports. In 2016, it raised tariffs on Mongolian goods passing through the country after Mongolia hosted Dalai Lama and stalled the negotiations for a $4billion loan. When the Philippines ended its pursuit of verdict of International Tribunal on the ownership of the Islands in the East China Sea which had gone against China in 2013, Beijing rewarded it with a hefty financial aid of $24billion.

The US and other states had followed the same playbook to acquire superpower or regional power status. The US employed all state power to establish itself as the central economic player in Latin America, controlling trade in agriculture, fruits and minerals, sugar and tobacco. It used finances as a powerful tool to strengthen its hold over the region. The American banks assumed the debts of the European creditors to reduce the influence of European rivals. For an extended period of 100 years, Washington used diplomacy to advance its economic interests, regional trade and investment through a string of initiatives. These initiatives are known in history as the Big Brother Policy in the 1880s, Dollar Diplomacy in the early 1900s and the Alliance for Progress in the 1960s.

The classic trap
Chinese strength in South China Sea

Under the Monroe Doctrine, the US formed the Organization of American States in 1948 headquartered in Washington and established its full control over Latin American states in the name of security and cooperation. It ensured these states kept quiet or even considered legitimate various US military and political interventions in the region. The US also created a string of development institutions which included the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, US Agency for International Development and the US Export-Import Bank which advanced its political and economic interests.

By the start of twentieth century Central America had understood that the governments that the US supported stayed in power, while those not recognized and supported by the regional dominant power fell. In the recent past, the US blockaded Cuba in 1962, Dominican Republic in 1965, mined Nicaraguan harbours in 1980, invaded Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. It applied financial pressure to weaken Salvador Allende in Chile, embargoed Nicaragua to undermine Sandinista government.

The other dominant powers of the past had also employed hard and soft power including propaganda – print and electronic media particularly radio – finances, loans and investments to hold the countries captive – may it be European Imperial powers, Japan or the Soviet Union. The Europeans started occupying half of the globe after getting free from the Napoleonic wars in the early nineteenth century and stayed in their colonial possessions for over a century and half. The imperial Japan humbled China and took many possessions of the British India in the late nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries. The Soviet Union subdued East European and Baltic states employing both soft and hard power. The Soviet Union sanctioned Yugoslavia in 1948, Albania in 1961, Romania in 1964, invaded Hungary in 1956 and Afghanistan in 1979. What analysts feel strongly is that history has taken a new cyclical turn for a change in international political and strategic landscape and China appears to be at the centre of it.

Alam Brohi is former Ambassador of Pakistan and was associated with Foreign Service of Pakistan


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