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VIEW FROM ABROAD: The coming US-China war?

News Desk
Monday, February 5, 2018



FEB 05, 2018

THE Doomsday Clock was recently reset to two minutes to midnight, indicating the dangerous times mankind is passing through currently. This is a notional device that measures the time we have left to live on this planet, but on a scale that stretches back to the emergence of Homo sapiens. According to scientists, this is the scariest moment in history since 1953 when the Cold War was at its height.

Although the dangers we face include rapid climate change, population increase in some of the poorest parts of the world, and increasing armed conflicts, Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency of the United States has not helped matters. His bellicose tweets and testosterone-fuelled pronouncements have rattled friends and foes alike. Just over a year ago, he announced:

“The US must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes…” And when aides tried to downplay the statement, saying the US was not starting an arms race, Trump said in an interview: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

During his presidency, Barack Obama had announced plans to modernise America’s nuclear arsenal at a cost of $1.2 trillion. Trump’s nuclear doctrine has the same budget, but includes smaller nuclear bombs that could be used on the battlefield. This would be a game-changer in US strategy as it would lower the nuclear threshold, and make escalation to a full-scale thermonuclear exchange more likely. In fact, Washington has objected to Pakistan’s development of small tactical nukes precisely for this reason.

But the US is not alone in spending vast sums to upgrade and expand its nuclear arsenal: Russia and China are doing the same thing. North Korea is in the midst of a much-publicised programme to miniaturise its warheads so they can be mounted on its missiles. India and Pakistan are both building up their stashes of nuclear weapons. Israel, although never having admitted to building nuclear bombs, is known to have at least 200 warheads.

And yet the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obliges signatories with nuclear capability to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, their arsenals. There was a period when the US and the USSR actually reduced the number of warheads each had, but now with tensions rising, the talk is about upgrading these weapons of mass destruction.

Another problem is that diplomacy has been increasingly sidelined by military power as a conflict-resolution tool. Even after Iran’s nuclear programme was mothballed following years of negotiations, Trump has reopened this chapter by demanding more concessions from Tehran. After this breach of trust, who will rely on Washington’s word?

But a more urgent issue here is the American concern that it may soon no longer be the world’s sole superpower. After the meltdown of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington had got used to the idea that it was the world’s most powerful state and would henceforth call the shots around the globe. Abandoning diplomacy for hard power, Washington proceeded to become the bully on the block. A quarter century ago, it was unquestionably far stronger than any of its putative rivals. It still is, but the gap is diminishing as the Chinese economy expands and modernises, and Russia emerges as a regional competitor. Even little North Korea can challenge the might of the United States.

Recently, there has been much talk of something called the Thucydides Trap. Named after the Greek historian who analysed the causes of the 30-year Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens that devastated Greece 2,500 years ago, the theory explains why the conflict began . According to Thucydides, Athens had witnessed a recent flowering of its arts, economy and military power, growing more confident as a result. Sparta, the pre-eminent power in Greece, felt threatened by the rise of Athens, and both states formed alliances to bolster their defences. When two of these allies went to war, both Sparta and Athens were sucked into the conflict.

The First World War had similar beginnings: when Germany embarked on a major military expansion programme that included building a large fleet of battleships, Britain feared that its far-flung empire would be threatened. This led it into a network of alliances in Europe that was then countered by Germany. Once these allies went to war, Germany and Britain felt obliged to join in. Four years of bloodshed later, Europe was devastated, its treasure drained, and the flower of a generation buried in killing fields from France to Russia.

In today’s context, the Thucydides Trap is relevant to China’s rise, and resulting American insecurity. But as Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, recognises, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a speech in the US a couple of years, ago he said:

“There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create traps for themselves.”

Academics analysing data from the rise of challenges to the status quo over the last five centuries have concluded that out of 16, four were peacefully resolved while 12 caused wars. So the odds on hostilities breaking out between China and the US are depressingly high at 4-1. Luckily, China is a cautious power that has tried to tread a fine line between openly challenging America, and asserting itself in the region.

But there are hawks in the US who recognise that if China becomes too powerful, it will be harder to contain later on. Meanwhile, Washington has built military bases around China and engaged in alliance-building from India to Australia to hamstring Beijing. It will take tact and diplomacy to overcome existing tensions, but there is little evidence of either in today’s White House.