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Is War Between the United States and China Inevitable?

Moises Naim

Greeks.jpg

Moisés Naím / El País

Thucydides, an Athenian who lived about 400 years before Christ, was a bad general but a good historian. His History of the Peloponnesian War chronicles the conflagration that erupted between Sparta and Athens in the fifth century BC. Many consider the book to be the first attempt to explain historical events using data and analysis instead of attributing them to the designs of the gods.

Based on his study of the causes that led Athens and Sparta to war, Thucydides maintains that it is difficult for a booming power, in this case Athens, to coexist peacefully with the dominant power, which in this case was Sparta. Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard University, has popularized this concept by calling it “Thucydides’s Trap.” Allison studied 16 situations that occurred in the last 500 years in which a nation emerges with the ability to compete successfully with the dominant power. In 12 of these 16 cases the result was war.

All of this has profound implications for our time and is the subject of Allison's recent book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? According to him, “on the current trajectory, war between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized. Indeed, on the historical record, war is more likely than not.”

Professor Allison's book is not the only one that warns about the consequences of the rise of the East and the decline of the West. The subject has inspired a great number of books, articles, and professional conferences. Gideon Rachman, a journalist for the Financial Times, has written a book called Easternization, referring to the “orientalization” of the world. Its central message is that the international hegemony of the Western powers, namely the US and Europe, is coming to an end. According to Rachman, the center of gravity of world power will eventually reside in Asia and, more specifically, China. Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist, is also concerned about The Fate of the West and so titled his new book. According to Emmott, “the West is the most successful political idea,” and clarifies that it is not a place, but a series of social and political concepts, values, and conditions guided by the preservation of individual freedom, economic openness, and the search for equality and justice for all.

Naturally, the increase in economic inequality that the countries of the West are suffering and the political problems that this has caused concern Emmott: “Without openness, the West cannot thrive; but without equality, the West cannot last.” Unlike the other authors, Emmott does not believe that Asia will displace the West. [You can see the video of my full interview with Bill Emmott at http://efectonaim.net/bill-emmott/]

The predictions that China will manage to become a worldwide hegemonic power underestimate the weaknesses of the Asian giant. These predictions also assume that the difficulties that limit the international influence of the United States and Europe are insoluble and therefore permanent. But neither are the problems of the West insoluble nor are those of China insignificant.

The reality is that while China's economic growth is staggering, its social progress indisputable, and the modernization of its military intimidating, its problems are equally overwhelming. Ian Buruma, an expert on Asian affairs, maintains that of all the recent books on the rise of the region, Professor Allison’s is the worst. According to Buruma, the professor shows a great ignorance about China and minimizes the problems that plague the country. Despite its rapid expansion, the Chinese economy is fragile and is full of mismatches and distortions. Economic inequality has soared and widespread poverty persists in rural areas. The country is an ecological disaster where every year more than one million people die from diseases caused by environmental pollution. Militarily, China is still far behind the United States, which also has a large network of allies in Asia who see China through a lens of suspicion and deep historical resentment. For example, Vietnam has had 17 wars with China.

But perhaps the most important objection to the vision of a China becoming a world leader is that its autocratic model is not very appealing and difficult to sustain. Keeping hundreds of millions of people subjugated to the designs of a dictator is a route that in these times leads to political instability. And a politically unstable country is not a good candidate to prevail in the confrontations predicted by Thucydides.