American economic dominance and military might have driven a phase of global growth unknown to mankind beforehand, and it believes that Asia remains within its sphere of influence. As China carves out a new economic world order it is challenging US hegemony in the region. Can the two nations accommodate and compromise or is the current trade war merely foreshadowing a conventional war?
The phrase we use to describe the ascent of a new power challenging the status quo is the “Thucydides Trap”. This refers to the rise of a new, powerful Athens instilling fear in Sparta and rendering war inevitable. Whilst this is a millennia-old parallel, over the past five centuries, out of the 16 times a rising power has challenged a hegemon, 12 have ended in war. War, it would seem, is the easier option. In the words of Yale historian Donald Kagan “A persistent and repeated error through the ages has been the failure to understand that the preservation of peace requires active effort, planning, the expenditure of resources, and sacrifice, just as war does”.
Peace, above all, requires mutual trust. The current breakdown in relations between the US and China suggests a serious lack of trust. This growing suspicion, on all levels, is taking a toll both commercially and politically: from American companies being advised not to buy Chinese-made solar panels to Chinese delegations being advised against travel to the US. There are rumours that technologies being manufactured in China are monitoring American citizens or worse- have embedded kill switches in them. The CFIUS has been quick to discourage Chinese investment American sectors that might be considered sensitive in terms of either national security or advanced technology. Indeed, the rift runs deeper than transnational commerce. Take the University of Michigan for example. They have recently banned the local Confucius Institute, a non-profit promoting Chinese-values across the world, for fear of espionage. The lack of trust is now traversing civilian life. Students on campuses fear their peers to be spies for foreign governments. The University of Michigan must understand that such fear mongering is not easily undone. Americans living through the “red scare” of the last century experienced a significant toll on their psyche and retained the complex long after the threat had passed.
As headlines focus on tariffs and the short-term trade war between the US and China, we need to work on rebuilding mutual understanding and trust if we wish to avoid the Thucydides Trap. *As I write, the US has just announced that it wants to take the Huawei executive being detained in Canada “off their hands”. Incarcerating a top Chinese executive will do little to improve Sino-American relations.