By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
U.S. President Donald Trump has begun what many see as an escalation in his Economic conflict over trade with China, as he announced a series of tariffs totaling $50 billion against China.
Trump has made no secret of the fact that he feels China engages in unfair trade practises, to the detriment of the American economy and American workers.
Beyond trade, though, the enmity between these two states follows historical precedents – and not very good ones, either.
Both countries, whether they acknowledge it or define themselves as such, are empires. They are vast territorial units with global military, economic and diplomatic influence.
And although, as Oxford University political scientist Jan Zielonka has suggested in his 2012 article “Empires and the Modern International System,” in the journal Geopolitics, they each “have an impressive record of interfering in their respective peripheries.”
This has become obvious in the case of China, since it has only risen to such prominence in the past two decades, and now challenges American hegemony. This might lead to what is known as the “Thucydides trap.”
Thucydides was an Athenian historian and general. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the fifth-century BC war between Sparta and Athens which gave rise to this concept. It refers to the danger that ensues when a rising power begins to challenge the dominance of an established one, with the latter likely to respond with violence.
In cases where one empire denies the other’s claims to legitimacy, and insists there can be only one imperial overlord, the likelihood of a major clash increases.
Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard University, last year published Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
“Reviewing the record of the past five hundred years, the Thucydides’s Trap Project I direct at Harvard has found 16 cases in which a major nation’s rise has disrupted the position of a dominant state,” he writes.
“In the most infamous example, an industrial Germany rattled Britain’s established position at the top of the pecking order a century ago. The catastrophic outcome of their competition necessitated a new category of violent conflict: world war.
“Our research finds that 12 of these rivalries ended in war and four did not -- not a comforting ratio for the 21st-century’s most important geopolitical contest.”
Today, an increasingly powerful China is unraveling the post-1945 American-defined world order, throwing into question the peace that generations have taken for granted.
“If Hollywood were making a movie pitting China against the United States on the path to war, central casting could not find two better leading actors than Xi Jinping and Donald Trump,” Allison states. “Each personifies his country’s deep aspirations of national greatness.”
Both countries consider the Asia-Pacific region as their own back yard, and Beijing’s attempt to turn both the East and South China Seas into Chinese lakes has alarmed the United States, along with many of China’s neighbours.
As China grows more powerful, it is displacing decades-old American pre-eminence in parts of Asia. China has started to wield growing military power and economic leverage to reorder the region, pulling long-time American allies like the Philippines and Indonesia closer. Sri Lanka has become a virtual economic vassal of China’s.
On March 5 Beijing announced that it will boost its defense spending by 8.1 per cent this year, the biggest increase in three years, even as it insists that it poses no threat to other countries.
The 2018 spending increase would outpace China’s economic growth. President Xi wants to modernize China’s military, vowing to turn it into a “world-class force” that is capable of fighting and winning wars.
China now has the world’s second-largest defense budget after the United States, enabling it to achieve the biggest and fastest shipbuilding expansion in modern history.
It plans to acquire the world’s largest navy, coast guard and maritime militia by number of ships; and the world’s largest conventional ballistic and cruise missile force.
While China grows in strength and confidence under Xi, who has recently assumed virtual dictatorial powers under the country’s constitution, Trump’s America seems to be at war with itself, especially in view of the country’s economic and political turmoil.
Washington faces exhaustion after costly yet inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as anti-terrorist missions across the globe.