A 25-year Army combat veteran who studied Economics at the Eisenhower School and Strategy at the Army School of Advanced Military Studies.
Flawed Conventional Wisdom
Every international relations or geopolitics pundit is ready to declare that war between China and the United States (US) is inevitable. Moreover, those with a bit of a scholarly bent to their argument push the Thucydides trap as the reason for inevitable war.
The Thucydides trap, coined after the Greek historian Thucydides, essentially says that war is the unavoidable evolution when an emerging power wants to become dominant, and to do so it needs to defeat the established superpower. You can easily ascertain that the emerging power is China and the superpower is the US.
The Thucydides Trap
The Thucydides trap has served history well. One can point to many points in history where this was clearly the case: Sparta and Athens; Chinese Dynasties; Rome and Carthage; and the numerous Western Europe power struggles. However, the world has changed drastically since those times. Please know that I am not diminishing the importance of the past, but I am saying that nation-states have matured politically and economically and along with globalization, nations, along with the rest of the world, would commit economic suicide, which would lead to widespread political and social upheaval.
The cost of such mindless conflicts would be most costly to authoritarian regimes such as China where holding on to power and the support of the populace requires a high level of economic performance. Could there be an exception to this train of thought? Sure—but now I get to pull out the ‘rational actor’ international relations approach model.
This is where, more often than not, the main actor (national leaders or high-level administrators) can be relied on to make decisions that will maximize the benefits to the state. Experts like to refer to this model because it best explains how we have not had a nuclear world war since the creation of such weapons. Keep in mind that today Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Ukraine have nuclear weapons. Simply put, why mess up a good thing?
However, what if?
The present economic ties between countries run so deep today that even the slightest international ‘hiccup’ sends the markets into a death spiral. A war between the US and China would lead to a total collapse of the world economy with little to no escape, not even for the super-wealthy. In addition, the standard of living would be set back decades for all classes of people.
Such a war would not remain between the US and China. Such a war would most likely evolve into a World War where countries would have to choose sides and pour their treasure and people into the conflict. Such an event would unleash the shackles of restraint on numerous ‘bad actors’ (national and supranational) throughout the world whose conflicts would cause the loss of countless innocent lives. Also, imagine the number of civil wars that could be unleashed once economies slowly collapse in developing nations. Social scientists and anthropologists have no name for what would befall our present world. As such, the solution is a heavily cooperative yet competitive relationship between the US and China.
Now, how can we get there?
Slow Is Smooth; Smooth Is Fast
The US needs to accept China as an emerging superpower that will spread its wings. The Far East and parts of Indochina are in their backyard, and it is only understandable that China will want to exert a certain amount of influence over its neighbors, especially as one considers the large diaspora of Chinese in many of its neighboring countries.
China needs to understand that the US has invested a lot in Asia and has legitimate interests in the region. Many of those interests are mutual with allies in the region. China needs to appreciate that some of its recent actions in the South China Sea are threatening not just to the US but also to its allies in the region who have ushered and continue to maintain a prosperous era. China should ensure that its actions align with the rules-based international system and carry territorial claims to the proper international legal body.
China will also have to recognize that they are no longer in need of Most Favored Nation status when it comes to trade. They need to enter and participate in fair trade negotiations. Anything else falls short of the expectations of a responsible and peaceful superpower.
No one expects this to take place overnight. This will happen slowly and deliberately. However, before we know it, new trade deals will be reached, territorial claims may be resolved, and recognition of an important emerging power will occur. Why is this important? Because the direction of the world for the next few decades will be decided by Sino-American relations and the way forward is an East-West Alliance between the US and China.
The world faces incredible challenges across numerous domains, from medical to legal to environmental. Each individual country could make some progress in each area, but at a much slower pace than if they joined resources in numerous ways.
Let us start by creating an alliance to get ahead of economic crises. This economic alliance would be a cooperative effort to act in concert to alleviate the negative consequences of economic downturns such as the one that occurred in 2008. The two superpowers could unite efforts to infuse money into markets during recessions to ensure that the markets on both ends of the globe do not freeze and thus worsen bad economic conditions.
Second, establish alliances that help create and establish cooperatives to improve the medical, legal, philosophical, technical, education, and labor disciplines. The two nations have a lot to learn from each other and some problems need resolution now. Take Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Within these alliances, fusion teams (specialized, focused, and highly resourced teams) could operate to bring all available resources, especially intellectual power, to solve such a terrifying disease. The alliance would allow the cure to spread from both ends of the world to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible. A similar template could be applied to other areas to solve what seem like intractable international issues.
The end result can be a peaceful relationship with a healthy dose of tension that would keep both sides honest in their intent. Success in such unions can slowly but surely bring other nations to act in accordance with the international rules-based order and usher in greater spans of peace and prosperity due to the example set by the US and China. The question is now, will the US and China take the opportunity presented to them and make history together or bog the world down in a second ‘Cold War’ that benefits no one?
© 2020 Fernando Guadalupe Jr