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Is War with China Inevitable?

China and the United States seem to be friendly rivals now (frenemies?), but Dr. Graham Allison’s book explores how the competition could escalate to a shooting war.

I just finished reading Graham Allison’s book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (2017). Before you doze off – Thucydides? Trap? War? What the …?– the concept actually makes sense and poses a significant danger to America’s future wellbeing.

There’s no disputing Allison’s credentials to write such a book and invent such a theory. The Harvard University professor is a former assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans under President Bill Clinton. Before coining the phrase “Thucydides Trap” and creating a new theory of foreign policy, Dr. Allison was best known for writing the influential Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (1971). No, I haven’t read that book, but I thought I should mention it for the erudite among you.

Now, about this Thucydides Trap thing. Thucydides was a general for the Greek city state of Athens and a historian who chronicled how Athens and major rival Sparta stumbled into a destructive war. The trap refers to when a rising power (in this case China) causes fear in an established power (U.S.), which could escalate toward war. Dr. Allison found 16 cases in the last 500 years where an upstart power caused tensions with the dominant power. The book notes 12 of the 16 cases ended in war, the most infamous scenario being Germany’s rise in the late 1800s to challenge Great Britain. That rivalry ended badly with the catastrophic World War I that destroyed four empires and killed more than 16 million people, not to mention the second act, WWII, which killed more than 60 million people.

Chinese economy booming

Calling the People’s Republic of China the rising power may be misleading. Dr. Allison tactfully waits until later in his book to point out that China may already be the dominant power, at least economically, thanks to its 1.4 billion people and rising productivity. Experts predict China’s economy will be at least twice the size of the U.S. within 10 years. I say tactfully because for a baby boomer like me, I’ve never known a world where America was NOT numero uno. Dr. Allison’s postulations in his book come as quite a shock.

What is China doing with its wealth? Quite a bit. The People’s Republic is rapidly expanding infrastructure with new roads, airports and high-speed trains, installing high-tech manufacturing, and of course building up its armed forces, on land, on the seas and maybe most worrisome, in space.

The People’s Republic of China fields one aircraft carrier compared to America’s 20, but the Chinese navy contains more submarines and more frigates than the U.S. Navy.

So how strong is China?

In the authoritative list Global Firepower, or GFP, China’s military is ranked No. 3 behind the U.S. and Russia. But some of the GFP’s numbers are disturbing. While the U.S. defense budget of $647 billion dwarfs Chinese military expenditures of $151 billion, the People’s Republic fields more tanks, artillery, submarines and frigates. America’s 20:1 advantage in aircraft carriers is still impressive, but the Chinese coast reportedly bristles with ground-to-ship missiles designed specifically to sink American carriers.

China is also flexing its muscle in cyberspace and outer space. Experts say China’s efforts to influence American politics and society is second only to Russia. Space analyst Namrata Goswami recently predicted China is determined to be the leading space power by 2045 by establishing permanent moon bases that will extract minerals and serve as a station for inter-planetary rocket launches. Goswami concludes America is 10 years behind China in this latest space race.

Who would win a U.S.-China war? No one knows, but the conflict would most likely become a missile exchange along with satellite attacks in space and cyberwarfare. American armies would not invade the Chinese mainland given the million-man People’s Liberation Army. The trouble with this war – whoever feels like they’re losing would probably escalate to nuclear.

Hot spots and how to avoid burning

Dr. Allison points out most Westerners have a fundamental misunderstanding of China. The country is not like us. It is based not on the principles of Western Civilization – namely Judeo/Christian/Greek/Roman traditions but rather on the much older philosophy of Confucianism. Confucius stressed order, authority, compliance and conformity. Chinese President-for-Life Xi Jinping agrees with that philosophy, especially with himself as the top authority figure. While China no longer is oppressed by “foreign devils,” most Chinese carry a chip on their shoulder from years of colonialism and invasion and want their nation to be recognized (and treated) as a world leader. Ironically, China’s slogan could easily be “Make China Great Again,” according to Dr. Allison. The country is not called “the Middle Kingdom” for nothing. A Chinese writer noted, “heaven is above, earth is below, and that in between heaven and earth is called China.”

Warhistorybuffs can easily recognize how dealing with over a billion people who believe with all their being their nation is the center of the universe could easily lead to a bad miscalculation that ends in war. (Americans might not believe our country is next to heaven, but we’re pretty darn close!) Dr. Allison believes disputes over China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, with Taiwan, between China and Japan and even economic competition (a trade war?) could spark a shooting match. After all, Americans and Chinese have killed each other before – in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion and in 1950 during the Korean War.

So how can China and the U.S. avoid the Thucydides Trap? President Obama and President Xi discussed the concept during one of their summit meetings. But recognition doesn’t guarantee anything. Dr. Allison suggests American policymakers use the principles of “applied history” to chart peaceful coexistence with a dominant China. Dr. Allison said America must respect China’s spheres of influence and let the People’s Republic take its place alongside the U.S. as a world leader. As an example, Dr. Allison ponders the naval confrontations taking place in the South China Sea. How would the U.S. react if Chinese warships cruised around the Caribbean? Hmmm… good point.

In summary, Dr. Allison writes the U.S. must scrap its current China policies and build a new framework based on new realities and revised attitudes. He uses the word “accommodation,” not appeasement, and says the new arrangements can both evolve naturally and be negotiated.

China tolerates no deviation from the company line, namely, whatever President-for-Life Xi Jinping says is the official policy, and that includes banning religions like Islam and unlicensed Christianity. Here, authorities blow up the 50,000-member Linfen Golden Lampstand Church. Can such a regime survive? 

Is China really a juggernaut?

No one can really argue with Dr. Allison’s logical arguments and historical precedents. The U.S. and China are probably on a military collision course unless leaders in both countries do something different. The China watchers Dr. Allison interviewed are convinced that President Xi Jinping not only wants China to match the United States but to surpass it economically, militarily and in world influence.

Dr. Allison seems fairly certain China will reach its goals. But I wonder. China is still a dictatorship. And dictatorships have a nasty habit of imploding. With President Xi’s consolidation of power, he has embarked on a new wave of oppression and suppression. Xi tolerates no dissent or even alternative ways of thinking.

Consider these facts:

  • In China’s “wild west,” the government has imprisoned a million Muslim Uighurs in what amounts to concentration camps. Thousands have simply disappeared.
  • Throughout China, the authorities are trying to stamp out Christianity. They arrest church leaders and attenders and dynamite “unlicensed” church buildings.
  • China has embarked on history’s most sophisticated system of surveillance and population control with it “social credits.” Under this system, which is gradually being introduced in Chinese cities, residents are awarded points or credits for their compliance and conformity with rules and regulations. Like a loyalty program at an American gas station, credits will allow holders to cash in on “goodies” only in this case the perks will be better schools, housing and jobs.
  • China is facing environmental disaster. Thousands of people wear face masks when they walk around Beijing to protect from air pollution, and the Gobi Desert is expanding rapidly due to ecological abuse.

There is very little outcry from China’s 1.4 billion people over these developments, so far. Confucius says obey your elders and accept your lot in life. But all authoritarian regimes eventually experience serious cracks in their structures. I can foresee a “brain drain” as China’s best-and-brightest run up against gratuitous rules imposed by petty bureaucrats. If they can put together the means, they will flee the country for more opportunities elsewhere. America should welcome them.

We’ll have to see what happens. Warhistorybuffs will enjoy watching world history unfold, as long as EMP bombs don’t start exploding.

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