The Thucydides trap: Muhammad Ziauddin

M Ziauddin

THE cold war had ended at our doorsteps. Since then Pakistan has been undergoing the consequences of seemingly never-ending aftermath costing us huge losses in men and money.

It has, indeed, remained a continuing saga of sufferings over the last nearly 40 years.

But what is of graver concern today is, we are once again being set up for another round of war by a drastic scene change in the last 12 months or so in the global geopolitics.

This war is likely to turn into a hot one if the combatants are not too careful.

Already military tensions are rising with potential flashpoints over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

And Pakistan because of its geographical location and its long-lasting friendship with China is likely to find itself occupying once again the unenviable position of a front-line state; but this time not of the so-called ‘free world’ but of what is perceived by the Americans as not-so-free- a- world! A close look at the way things have been moving over the last couple of years points to a deliberate attempt on the part of Washington to goad China into a military confrontation. Already a sort of cold war has come to define the relationship between the two global giants.

Washington has gone on a diplomatic spree to rally allies and strategic partners against the Asian powerhouse, China which today the US sees as its global challenger both militarily as well as economically.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has just finalized crucial meetings with counterparts from Europe as well as the so-called “Quad” (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) powers in the Indo-Pacific.

At the heart of the Biden Administration’s strategic offensive is the establishment of a coalition of ‘democratic’ powers ostensibly to preserve the so-called liberal international order and contain China.

During a recent event last week, Biden adopted particularly strident language on bilateral relations with China and reiterated America’s supposed role as a beacon of democracy. The new US President told Americans “We must speak up for human rights.

It’s who we are” and underscored his commitment to “reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the UN and other agencies that have an impact on China’s attitude.”

Reflecting on earlier conversations with his Chinese counterpart, Biden warned “there will be repercussions” should China press ahead with its human rights violations at home and in its near neighbourhood.

Blinken has openly endorsed “[a] tougher line on some of the egregious things that China has done” and warned of the Biden Administration’s preparedness to “take action on” a full range of human rights issues. According to Richard Javad Heydarian (Biden building a ‘democratic diamond’ around China, published in Asia Times on 19 Feb 2021), the White House has made it clear that it seeks to approach China question “from a position of strength”, namely in conjunction with allies.

The Biden Administration’s most consequential diplomatic offensive so far was the first meeting on Thursday among the Quad powers of Australia, the US, India and Japan in the Biden era.

Since the mid-2000s, the Quad has rapidly matured from an informal talk shop among the four major powers into an undeclared alliance against China.

Beijing has said it views the grouping as a de facto “Asian NATO.” In fact, the US, Australia, Japan and India have all actively sought to enhance the maritime security capabilities of China’s rivals in the South China Sea, namely Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

However, according to William Yuen Yee (The US and China are not in a “New Cold War”, published on 31 January 2021), three vital differences reveal the erroneous nature of labelling US-China relations as a “new Cold War.”

First, economic interdependence: At the peak of US-USSR trade in 1943, prior to the outbreak of the Cold War, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to just US$115 million. And by the time the Cold War kicked into high gear, trade between the two rival countries became virtually nonexistent.

On the other hand, in 2020, bilateral trade in goods between the US and China totalled over US$500 billion—and this represented a recent downturn due to the trade war and COVID-19.

China holds US$1.1 trillion in US Treasury Securities. China’s accession to the WTO in 2001 expanded market access to US companies and provided US consumers with more affordable products.

As the 2008 financial crisis sent shockwaves through the US economy, Chinese investment helped stabilize its most important trading partner.

Second, diplomatic and security allies: In response to the NATO comprising the US and its Western European allies, the USSR-led Warsaw Pact created a military alliance of eight European communist states.

The Soviet Union’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance provided economic aid to Eastern bloc states and additionally expanded the USSR’s sphere of influence.

In 2021, China lacks any significant diplomatic or security allies. In contrast, the US not only boasts higher favourability ratings than China worldwide but also enjoys close security alliances with many of the PRC’s proximate neighbours like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.

Third, ideological ambitions and the “China model”: The Soviet Union actively spread a universal, “Soviet model” to the rest of the Cold War-era world, just as the US vigorously promoted democracy.

Yet China today does not export Marxism-Leninism nearly to the extent that Stalin—or Mao Zedong—did. Instead, the PRC upholds state sovereignty and non-intervention. According to the author, it is undoubtedly a relief to see the Biden Administration take the reins of US foreign policy, which will ensure US competitiveness against China while eschewing much of the Trump Administration’s rabble-rousing and racial animosity.

But as anti-Chinese sentiment climbs in the United States, the fine line might start to dissolve between exhortations to “be tough” on China and talk of a “new Cold War.”

At that moment, it will be critical to recall the lessons of history and reject them. But in that hour of crisis would the US be able to hold back? That is what makes one wonder how long the US would be able to retain its self-control in the face of a certain defeat at the hand of China in a cold war? That is called the Thucydides trap which makes a hot war inevitable between the declining US and rising China.

— The writer is a veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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