Thucydides Trap: The coming US-China (non) war!

Thucydides Trap: The coming US-China (non) war! Featured

IN November 2019, I wrote a piece on the rise of China based on the book of our Harvard Dean Graham Allison — Destined for War (2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The book described China's reappearance on the world stage as a superpower "...after an absence of more than two hundred years. It may be recalled that ancient China, the Middle Kingdom, was dominant in Asia for thousands of years before it was eclipsed by the West that began during the Age of Discovery in the early 16th century."

Allison proposes that the impact of China's rise will cause "...discombobulation to the US and the international order." He cited Thucydides, the Greek historian who first defined the concept of history in his History of the Peloponnesian War 2,500 years ago. In his book, he suggests that "[i]t was the rise of Athens and the fear that this installed in Sparta that made war inevitable." Applying this to the current status of America confronted with the rise of China, Allison conceived the "Thucydides Trap, a dangerous dynamic that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a major ruling power." In this case, China, the rising power, threatens to displace the ruling power, the United States. Will war ensue, as in Athens versus Sparta? Allison suggests that war is likely but not inevitable.

And this is the theme underpinning this column: to divine the direction America is embarking on, in the light of US House Speaker Pelosi's Taiwan visit — an "in your face move" on the People's Republic of China (PROC) that has always asserted that Taiwan is her province. This histrionics by the US, poking the eye of China may be an injudicious move but in the eyes of the US Democrats, a necessary though not altogether a brilliant one. But we have gone beyond Thucydides Trap and the world is no longer surprised by America's antics since they installed a buffoon of a president in the White House and now propping the sagging image of another septuagenarian president. Apparently, Pelosi's move was a play to the American voters signaling that the Democrats are shoring up its conservative streak, playing to the right wing, recapturing the American narrative from the Trumpists — who may stage a return to the White House.

Pelosi's was a calibrated move with the US probably having game-planned China's response. True enough, the full might of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was revealed signaling its anger over this seeming provocation. But I'm afraid Beijing's response was more for show and perhaps a diversion — intended for its masses — given domestic economic dislocations precipitated by a massive real-estate bubble; averting in some ways China's impending economic collapse — if the Economist and the New York Times were to be believed. Tidbits of news have filtered out from the mainland that Chinese banks have frozen and curtailed bank accounts withdrawals — with the ordinary citizens boycotting mortgage payments; all resulting in an inevitable string of bank failures.

Third Crisis

It may be recalled that in 1996, China (PROC) caused crises when it fired missiles into the seas off Taiwan. President Clinton dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups to Taiwan as a gesture of solidarity and support. This was the so-called third crisis after that of 1954 and 1958 where a castrated PROC had to back down against the display of American might. Experts contended that the consequences of these three crises spurred China to purchase better generations of weaponry and develop strategies for future nuclear and non-nuclear confrontations — that will diminish the effectiveness of the US 7th fleet around the straits.

This time while Pelosi's plane was en route to Taipei, the PROC-PLA launched its largest and massive military exercise response lasting over a period of a week; blasting-off missiles towards the Taiwan strait with its latest aircraft and destroyers, submarines, and its own aircraft carriers.

If anything, this was to show America and the world that after several crises precipitated by the USA and Taiwan since the '50s, China has come into its own. It has transformed itself into a world military power, herself capable of going mano-a-mano with the US. It may have achieved parity with America on military capabilities. Experts maintained that it has even surpassed the US in shipbuilding, land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, and now is the third largest nuclear power after the US and Russia. Its recent bully move in the South China Sea (WPS) fortifying island fortresses has given China unsinkable aircraft carriers.

But will China go to war for Taiwan? Or the reverse question may even be more succinct and valid. Will the US risk war with China over Taiwan? These past weeks, Pelosi's visit has given China a pretext to elevate its military activity to another level just to a point where it is not seen as challenging the might of America. On the other hand, President Xi, with all his domestic troubles relegated temporarily to the sidelines, has proven to its citizens, humiliated for decades, and to the world that China can take Taiwan anytime they want. The massive build-up and repositioning of Chinese forces facing Taiwan was more a rehearsal for China's inevitable invasion than a response to a provocation.

The coming invasion

Pelosi's visit may be for China a blessing in disguise. It has allowed PLA to flex its muscles and practice for any eventualities; prepositioning assets, fuel, munitions and materiel into forward positions in Fujian province fronting Taiwan; and may have perfected its communication structures, coordinating air, land and sea forces required for a lightning invasion — similar and even better than any German Blitzkrieg of the second world war. But more importantly, China may have found a renewed sense of confidence.

China has bided its time. It is an old society spanning thousands of years. It must be clear to them by now that a strategy to overwhelm Taiwan using the element of surprise, is doable — before America can mobilize and get a consensus going. America, since the Trump phenomenon, has a highly polarized political society. And this is the perfect backdrop for a Chinese excursion. And I doubt that America will risk a war over Taiwan. Precious young white American blood may not be spilled to preserve the way of life of a faraway Asian nation. This is not racist. This is simply the reality. America for all its braggadocio, technological advances and military might has shown with its latest humiliation in Afghanistan and powerlessness in Ukraine that it is no longer up to it — the world's self-appointed policeman and keeper of its vaunted concepts of Freedom Democracy.

A quick defeat and occupation of Taiwan — which is her province anyway — will not precipitate a wider conflict. China and America with their nuclear arsenal understand only too well the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

And thus, Thucydides Trap may have sprung — starting decades back and accelerating with the American miscalculations over the decades; with Pelosi's visit just a footnote. China has risen and America may be on the wane, but both will not risk nuclear war. China regaining Taiwan is inevitable — war is not.

 

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