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The Thucydides’ Trap: the Avoidable Destiny Between the US and China

Yuan Jiang

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The controversial “Thucydides trap” argument has sparked a heated debate since 2013, when President Xi Jinping of China told a cluster of western guests: “We must all work together to avoid Thucydides’ trap.” Later, this concept was elucidated by Professor Graham Allison in his articles, talks and famous book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap. So, what exactly is this Thucydides ’trap?

The phrase originates from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides who had observed that the Peloponnesian war (431BC-404BC) was caused by the growth of Athens, the rising power, and the corresponding fear of Sparta, the ruling power. Currently, this historical scenario is applied to discuss the relations between China, the emerging power, and the United States (US), the established power. The rise of China and the relative decline of the US allude that a gradual power imbalance may repeat history and lead to war. In fact, 12 of the 16 historical power shifts have resulted in catastrophe. More importantly, this narrative, to some extent, suggests the current dominant power is taking preemptive measures against the rising one. In reality, the US-initiated Sino-American trade war reflects this precautionary attitude.

The world may argue that although China has become more assertive than before, this war is the consequence of President Donald Trump’s radical foreign policy. Consequently, Trump started this war even though it may harm the Sino-American economic ties, leading to a negative economic impact on both sides. As a matter of fact, the Sinophobic turn in Washington is essentially a bipartisan consensus that realistically considers the economic facts thanks to strategic thinking. Based on the research of Alyssa Leng and Roland Rajah, the US had been at the helm of world trade until 2000, trading with over 80% of countries worldwide. However, in 2018, this number has plummeted to just 30%, as China has replaced the position of the US in 128 of 190 countries. Thus, “this bipartisan shift may have coincided with Trump’s arrival but the very fact that it is bipartisan demonstrates that it was not Trump who created it. Like a rooster at dawn, his crowing simply called forth the inevitably rising sun”. This situation raises the following questions: which side suffers the least? If the US achieves its goal of putting down China, who will win? According to Bruno Macaes, “in the end, the question of whether a new world order will be born, or the status quo preserved is less important than the question of whether the outcome will be determined peacefully or whether China and America are destined for war”.

This does look like the inevitable Thucydides’ trap, but where is the solution? It is conceivable that the trade war is just a sign that might follow more fierce disputes militarily. As historical determinists, Professor Graham Allison and Professor Jonathan Holslag both believe that the strategic transformation of structural forces between China and the US are doomed to conflict that has already emerged and will transpire more dramatically, ineluctably reshaping the global geopolitical landscape. Currently, China is not strong enough to compete with the US in general and “the balance of power could continue to be in America’s favor for quite a long time into the future.” It is then justifiable for the US to want to suppress China’s growth right now. However, I argue that the reality is far more complex than the aforementioned circumstance and there indeed exists some way to avoid this “inevitable” trap.

First, diplomacy and leadership in the US and China play pivotal roles in avoiding this dilemma. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd argues that political leaders and elites are not “simply some kind of puppet of anonymous structural forces”, but can change the historical tendency, to some extent. He proposes “constructive realism” as a solution by saying, “agency—what leaders decide, and those elites who advise them shape— actually determines the future course of history”. By suggesting that based on reality, the leaders of both sides should differentiate between the non-negotiable and negotiable national interests, thus managing the Sino-American strategic competition. In this context, the China-represented authoritarian capitalism versus the US-led liberal capitalism, is able to compete without one devastating the other and finally let the winner prevail.

Similarly, Chinese prominent scholar Jin Canrong suggests that when drawing on the wisdom of the Chinese and American leaders and diplomats, the two countries should neither have a “Hot War” nor a “Cold War”. The first may result in total planetary destruction with the example of the two World Wars during which great losses were suffered due to militaristic action worldwide. The later might bring about a deconstruction of the entire international trade system. Because of today’s economic globalization, a “Cold War” would devastate our internationally integrated economy, specifically, the existing Sino-American interdependent economic connections.

Nevertheless, Professor Jin proposes that the two sides should have a “Chess War”, as a metaphor of playing chess, which denotes that the two sides should be more transparent, reveal their strategic capabilities and intentions and reasonably bargain with each other. This is analogous to Rudd’s approach of distinguishing clearly between the non-negotiable and negotiable national interests of both parties. Furthermore, Jin argues that when China develops to a certain level, it will comprehensively compete with the US in all aspects. The US, as a commercial and pragmatism-centered empire, will compromise and accept China’s position, thus forming the global bi-core leadership and co-governing the world. He argues that the new global system is akin to the Concert of Europe/Age of Metternich, the balance of European powers between the Napoleonic War and World War One. The notion is to forgive France, the war initiator, and invite it to be part of European leadership, maintaining peace in Europe for a whole century.

The second plausible approach to this dilemma can be taken from the angle of a third party. Facing the increasingly Sino-American tension and the potential outbreak of a proxy war, Professor T. V. Paul advocates for “Soft Balancing”, meaning small-scale countries relying on “international institutions, limited ententes” to unite and enhance their strength. Uniting smaller countries thwarts the threatening behavior of the rising or ruling powers through economic instruments or moral and legal condemnation, thereby avoiding the Thucydides’ Trap. By comparison, the military capabilities or “Hard Balancing” of a country, remain important, but are clearly not as cost-effective as the institutionally driven “soft” method. Taking the ASEAN states’ soft balancing strategy toward China as an example, in addition to aligning with the American navy as hard balancing tactics, the ASEAN has involved diverse institutional engagements such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea), the Chiang Mai Initiative and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. These measures not only benefit the ASEAN countries from the economic rise of China, but simultaneously limit China’s territorial claim in the South China Sea by the united voice of ASEAN. To some extent, this strategy alleviates the Sino-American hostility and competition for leadership in this area, allowing the countries involved to have a fighting chance in the race for power.

To summarize, both approaches are aimed at constructing the scarce asset through frequent diplomatic communication: trust. In the anarchical international system, due to the fact there is no central authority to enforce laws, international actors, in the course of interactions, are always suspicious of each other’s real intentions. Indeed, human beings are distrustful and forgetful, repeating 12 identical mistakes throughout history. As the Western philosopher George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, the Chinese poet Du Mu wrote about how a destroyed dynasty vanished before it could reflect on its mistakes. Du details that the later generations of the dynasty felt the impact of this failure, yet did not learn from the past, continuing the cycle of collapse. While Graham Allison believes that the US and China may be destined to a violent collision, his relevant Ted Talk leads one to believe that the last two power shifts of the world were peaceful. Between the US and Soviet Union power shift from the 1940s to the 1980s, and the UK, France and Germany power shift from the 1990s until now, demonstrated how we are able to break the cycle of destruction. Especially, the European power shift proved the importance of diplomatic leadership. Hopefully, as time progresses, mankind may learn to draw lessons from a series of historical tragedies. When the political leaders of the world face irreconcilable conflicts of interest, they will look into the dark and bottomless chasm in front of them and say, “that is indeed a very deep hole which we should not fall into.”

From our partner RIAC

Yuan Jiang is a Chinese PhD student currently studying at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. He is affiliated with the QUT Digital Media Research Centre, focusing on the Belt and Road Initiative. He completed his master’s degree in political science at Moscow State Institute of International Relations as a Russian Speaker and bachelor’s degree of law at Shanghai University. He served as an Account Manager of ZTE Corporation and special correspondent in Asia Weekly and The Paper/Pengpai News, both in Moscow. His writing has also appeared in The Diplomat, The National Interest, South China Morning Post, Russian International Affairs Council, Australian Outlook- Australian Institute of International Affairs, China Brief-The Jamestown Foundation, Global Times (English Edition), Modern Diplomacy, US-China Perception Monitor, Southern People Weekly Magazine, People’s Daily (Overseas Edition), Caixin and Kanshijie Magazine. As a Chinese student and journalist, he was invited to comment on Financial Times, Russia Today and some Russian TV and radio talk shows several times. He tweets at @jiangyuan528. For more information, please refer to his LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/jiangyuan528/

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East Asia

From Patriotism to Humanity: China Leading the Fight of the COVID-19

Sabah Aslam

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The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has not only impacted human and social life in terms of disease and infection but also created a controversy in the international media and social network to the point that some western media fell into the trap of racism and xenophobia showing an unusual and an inhuman reactions, instead of solidarity and unity exhibition.

Since China is the first country infected with this virus, so it has already started its fight, the government as a leader has put a clear and effective strategy with successful measures of treatment, protection and prevention. In order to maintain the situation the government dedicated all kind of resources and today’s statics shows an increasing of the confirmed infections and death cases and a considered decrease of healed people’s number.

As a matter of fact, the World Health Organization’ Chief TedrosAdhanomGhebreyesus has defended his earlier praise of China’s response to the outbreak and mentioned that all the member of the WHO has praised China for what it did by taking action in the epicenter, helped to prevent cases of being exported to other provinces in china and the rest of the world. This formal statement just confirmed the truth to the world about China’s reliability and the sacrifices made to safeguard the world.

All Chinese government’s management and measures wouldn’t be successful without the great response of the society. As a matter of fact we need to acknowledge the high level of patriotism of the Chinese citizens. No matter their social status;the military, police, engineers, workers, doctors and nurses, business and company owners, celebrities, civilians and ordinary people, students and volunteers, young-middle-old generations, all this people responded to the call of duty applied and followed meticulously all the recommended measures by the government, indeed by their own free will, they sacrificed wealth, made many donations, provided help and assistance donated free masks , free supplies, goods, food and even provided free services, and differently some people made a priceless contribution such the doctors, fully dedicated, working on clock on the front line risking and even sacrificing their lives to save other people’s lives.

Meantime, in the other side of the globe the coronavirus kept spreading, the virus is traveling the world it has no boundaries and it’s affecting the economy, the social life and the public health, it becomes a public enemy, presenting a threat especially for the African communities, in fact many of them they do not have neither the financial means nor a good health security. But since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Africa CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) took many actions and followed the Chinese in term of union and solidarity.

Indeed Africa CDC collaborated with the World Health Organization to train in-coming analysts in event-based surveillance. Also The Africa CDC has been working with member states to build infection prevention and control capacities in healthcare facilities and with the airline sector to support screening of travelers.

These prevention measures may help control the COVID-19, but African leaders still need to pay attention and follow suit to avoid an outbreak and not reproduce the Italian or Iranian scenarios. Recently, World Health Organization chief TedrosAdhanomGhebreyesus warned about the efficiency of the prevention measures and said mediocre preparations could have fatal consequences. He also said the real struggle lies in management of the situation in case of an outbreak.

Generally, Africa doesn’t have a high level of public health. Many diseases and viruses have appeared on the continent, such as HIV, Ebola and tuberculosis. In order to fight and eliminate this threat, a number of African governments have increased expenditures allocated to health and started cooperation for health development with the Chinese government.

China promised to continue to scale up assistance to African countries by creating a health care intuitive allowing the African countries to achieve independent and sustainable development. The plan also contain a long-term strategy of health development, exchange of scientists and new research and technical support for strengthening health-related capacities under the International Health Regulations. China aim to improve African medical and health service and hospital management to provide a better services to the African people by training medical staff, public health workers and administrative personnel. Besides China promised to upgrade its medical and health aid programs for Africa, particularly flagship projects such as the headquarters of the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The cooperation’s plan shows the Chinese-African comity, the friendship and the mutual respect and we can clearly see that China is determined to the contribution in the development of the African nations. The actual epidemic situation of the COVID19 in Africa needs more attention and prevention, the collaboration precisely with china will be a wise action considering the Chinese experience of management, logistics, and organization to maintain the situation in case of outbreak and bringing out the best of the Sino-African alliance.

Despite that China is still fighting this epidemic in its own territory, the government express his readiness to help the other infected countries, recently the Chinese Foreign Ministry expresses sincere thanks for the support and assistance provided by many countries such South Korea and Japan, adding that China is ready to improve and strengthen the mechanism of responding to health and epidemic emergencies and promote the exchange of epidemiological information, exchange of experiences, prevention and control, to implement cooperation In the areas of diagnosis, treatment, research programs, and the development of medicines and vaccines.

China is acting heroically; in the middle of its own fight against the virus the PRC still showing gratitude and good will to help others countries. Till now Africa still has the chance to prevent and learn the Chinese experience, sadly some Africans countries still didn’t take serious prevention measures but China can provide the help and the assistance.

During the outbreak of the COVID-19 we all have seen the Chinese citizen showing patriotism and helping to maintain the situation, meanwhile the Chinese government have shown the same to the world, the lockdown was a strategy to stop the virus from spreading globally, if the Chinese government didn’t take the decision to lockdown cities and stop flights and traffics, experts confirmed that the COVID-19 could infect much more of global population, in fact it was a noble and human act, full of altruism and unselfish, all the matter was the human life.

Now China jumps to the next step which is helping the affected countries and proposing ways of preventions, sharing the genetic code for the virus with researchers around the world and providing medical trials information, treatment, and research programs for the development of medicines.

It’s time for solidarity and support and to have hope. This is a matter of life or death, and China can fight against the outbreak with the rest of the world to the safety…. to restore faith in humanity.

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East Asia

Predicting the course of US-China relations in the post Covid-19 era

Ayush Banerjee

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Authors: Ayush Banerjee and Dhritiman Banerjee*

The coronavirus pandemic is a natural threat to the geopolitical order. And it is needless to state that this majorly affects the currently international paradigm in a manner that the world has not seen before. Although there have been a few instances where pandemics have shaken the mortality rates, no pandemic has spread this amount of sheer panic among the public at large. This is largely due to the growing interconnectedness and the advent of the cyberspace. Just as the internet has influenced the lives of the most privileged public, data has been influential in academics and politics alike. However, this argument has its own set of problems that continue to affect public-politic relations in ways more than one.

In the same regard, one of the most strained and keenly debated relations in international politics is that between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. In the context of the virus itself, the virus originated in Wuhan, a province in China while the most number of fatalities have resulted in the United States of America. This idea fuelled with the new world media at the public level created an atmosphere of tension on such platforms. On Twitter notably, there were several instances of a tweet naming Covid-19 as ‘Chinese Virus’ spread like wildfire. This sparked a major controversy even at the diplomatic level. Even Donald Trump momentarily subscribed to the idea and deliberately worded his speech to use the phrase ‘Chinese/China virus’ to refer to Covid-19 at least 20 times between March 16th and March 30th 2020. The US Secretary of State- Mike Pompeo went on to accuse China of its lack of transparency, even scrapping a joint G7 statement after its members refused to refer to the virus as the ‘Wuhan virus.’ China has remained apologetic ever since. Hence, it can be rightly inferred that the relationship shared between China and USA have strained ever since the Covid-19 outbreak.

However to predict how the outbreak might jeopardise the current paradigm of world politics we must look no further than the Phase One Trade deal signed between the two countries. This deal previously ended an 18-month long trade war between USA and China. Through this deal, China committed to purchasing $200 billion additional foreign goods and services in the sectors of agriculture, energy and manufacturing. However, it is evident that in the post-Covid19 era, it will be rather implausible for China to adhere to the terms of the deal due to reasons more than one. The IMF estimated the reality of an unprecedented economic slowdown in which China is expected to grow at only 1.2% this year. Several reports suggest that investors are planning to pull out their investments from Chinese industries to fit in with the Western bandwagon.

The outbreak turned pandemic coupled with the authoritarian nature of China’s response to the entire situation has had a detrimental effect on their domestic economy creating various tremors in the anticipation of demand for various products and services. For instance, the 12 most Covid-19 affected countries account for over 40% of the Chinese exports. Nations like India and Italy that also make that list of twelve may voluntarily pull out of importing to China as they are set to gain from deferring of investments. These nations are also top suppliers of intermediate goods for the Chinese economy. The Chinese economy is quite dependent on external demand stimuli from the US and most western European states such as the United Kingdom. Therefore, until the point in time the US and EU economies completely recover from this pandemic, Chinese policymakers are bound to hold back domestic stimulus efforts as it will only have little effect if the global economy is in shambles.

The Chinese economy has crippled down considerably due to the ongoing trade war that has led to a disproportionate ratio of debt to the annual Gross Domestic Product. This ratio reached an overwhelming 248.8% by the end of March 2019 and it has only increased ever since. China has also been forced to restructure the debts of the Belt and Road initiative (erstwhile OBOR). This restructuring meant that the capital owed to China as loans by the contributing states have been readjusted to affect the projected collection considerably. As Covid-19 nearly decimates the economy of most developing nations, it is becoming increasingly difficult for these states to pay their loan back to China within the stipulated timeframes. Thus adding to the stress on the Chinese economy at large.

There has already begun a region-specific boycott of Chinese goods and industries, especially in conservative parts of USA, among the southern districts. Instances of racial abuse against ethnic Chinese communities have been on an unfortunate rise. These are all deterministic factors of public consciousness, if not, public opinion for the future that lies ahead of us. This reaction has already seen international spillovers and investors have become more anxious about investing in Chinese companies.

According to Deepanshu Mohan, the world may experience radical shifts in the global political economy post-Covid19 based on two factors namely, the relative degree of economic recovery in the affected nations and the existing domestic political scenarios in such nations. He further states that in the post-Covid19 era, protectionist trade policies are likely to increase in the developed nations who in the name of ‘supply security’ may disentangle trade relations with China which will inversely affect the current geopolitical world order. Donald Trump could also make the pandemic a focal point in the 2020 election campaign and therefore aim to capitalise on the anti-China fervour in the US and thus strain relations even further. There lies evidence for this as well. Trump recently presented his anguish towards China being categorised as a ‘developing’ state under the World Trade Organisation list and due to the low contributions of China to the World Health Organisation. Although this may seemingly appear appropriate accusations, this is far from the whole truth. The USA, themselves have cut major proportions of its funding capacity towards the United Nations especially concerning peacekeeping and security operations.

Minxin Pei, on the other hand, stated that the Covid-19 outbreak has led the average American to view the Chinese political system with chronic scepticism as Americans blamed the repressive Chinese political system for the pandemic with the Harris poll indicating widespread American dissatisfaction with the alleged Chinese cover-up of the virus. This poll also showed overwhelming support for US punitive measures on China and the removal of US investments and businesses from China. These developments could lock the two countries into a cycle of escalation that could trigger another potential international diplomatic conflict leading to numerous security issues and economic degradation. USA and China remain the two largest economies in the world. Hence, it can be inferred that this fallout of diplomatic and economic ties between the two states might amount to significant damage in the entire global political order and the globalised system of economies and markets. In the US itself, the number of jobs created since the recession in 2008 has been washed away in two weeks.

The trade war between the two economic giants had already shaken the world before the outbreak. And the prevalent fault lines will only widen in the post-Covid19 era just as a global economic slowdown is expected. Thus, it is imperative for the world economy that this US-China relation remains amicable and stable. However, the available narratives indicate a significant detour from the ideal stability that USA and China should normatively maintain to protect the global economy from crumbling down like biscuits. The USA has resorted to legislations that are actively anti-China in terms of financial relations and international trade while China has strengthened its protectionist response system both politically and economically during this outbreak.

The Covid-19 outbreak has not acted as an impediment to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea region either. China has recently renamed 44 features in the disputed region, a decision that is considered illegal under international law. This has been time and again criticised by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. With increasing US-China missile competition a reality in the region post the abrogation of the INF treaty, the post-Covid19 era will likely see more prominent conflicts in the South and the East China Sea regions which is a strategically important waterway for both the countries alongside other nations such as Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and India.

*Dhritiman Banerjee is an undergraduate student at the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. He has recently published for the Millenniumpost, a Kolkata based newspaper as well as contributed to publications like the Geopolitics and South Asia Monitor. His interests lie in International Relations in general and Strategic Studies in particular.

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Political unrest in Hong Kong and Global Pandemic

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Things started from a murder of a girl in Taiwan ending up into an unseen scenario in Hong Kong. Rising tensions in the region of China and Hong Kong, situation is getting worse. First of all the episode of extradition bill and now becoming the series of different surprises, the advent of National Security Bill is not acceptable among the Hong Kong citizens. According to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong is ought to be the autonomous and free liberal region along china being constituted as a “one country, two systems.” As per this treaty, China is violating International law: which is a direct threat to its soft policy and international image.

 Secondly, the role of United States in Hong Kong is mainly concerned about the large number of U.S. Nationals working there especially at naval ports and their security. While on the national level the sustainability of democratic values and freedom in Hong Kong to whom these acts of China’s Communist party are challenging. United States being the global hegemon owns the responsibility to protect and keep the check on practice of international laws and its violation in any region of the world. Although the whole global community is concerned about the present situation of Hong Kong and its upcoming outcomes. States sign treaties and agreements on the basis of one’s predetermined political and social culture and works accordingly, so following the current scenario the Protest in Hong Kong is going to be game changing event. If the bill passed, Hong Kong will be a Chinese administered territory like another small city of Chinese Communist party but on the other hand if failed to pass this bill Hong Kong can have a victory to win the democracy and write the fate of their state in a new way.

Furthermore, the wave of global pandemic in the form of COVID 19 has already questioned the worth of human security. Millions of people are dying due to this disease originated from Wuhan, China. World is already questioning the Chinese role. Above all the differences, we all are human beings living in the world of chaos. Divisions led towards the more divisions. There is a dire need to fight collectively to this coronavirus. Being humans, we need to apply the only global value that is being human fellow. Social distancing is the new normal now but Hong Kong’s political situation is getting more anti distance campaign due to the political unrest. China needs to slow down the process. Human security needs to be the priority. Although to raise the voice of Hong Kong’s people social media can be a better platform. Let’s shake hands for peace rather than division.

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