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The transition of power

The transition of power

As of 2019, the United States remains the dominant superpower of the world. It controls the most formidable army and enjoys influence across all continents in matters of governance, economics and diplomacy. But according to leading political experts, the American influence is largely based on inertia from previous decades. The policies that were the corner stones of development and hegemony have been weakened and the mantle of progress and dominance have been taken over by the people of China.

The GDP of China, when viewed through purchasing power parity has surpassed that of United States. As the economic gap shrinks, there are bound to be fears of loss and decline. The overtaking of power is a tough question, one that will be answered in a short span of years between America and China. Could it lead to a catastrophic war? Is the world doomed towards another devastating war-like scenario reminiscent of the World Wars or is there any alternative left? The time to ponder is now. In September, 2019, Donald Trump proudly announced that due to his tariff hikes and financial maneuvering, there have been around 3 million job losses in China. This is a mere display of the underlying perspective that the US is moving towards its Asian counterpart. Conversely, the Chinese army repeated reiterates that it is ready to go to any lengths to defend the boundaries of China and has the full capability of dealing with the US threat near and around South China Sea and Korean peninsula. It appears, the world is entering into a situation that has existed between rising states in the past. As early as Greeks, it was identified by a historian named Thucydides. As he studied the rise of Athens versus the city state of Sparta, he formulated it as the ‘Thucydides’s Trap’. He concluded that whenever one great nation replaces another in terms of power and dominance, the fear and self-interest of the contesting nations leads to a catastrophic war. Even after 2500 years, the same principle is being highlighted by political thinkers like Henry Kissinger who was the initial Secretary of State when the United States made its contact with the People’s Republic of China(PRC) in the 1970s. Kissinger validates that Thucydides’s Trap clearly exists between USA and China and there is little hope to avoid it.

In the last 500 years, in a transition of power between great nations, 12 out of 16 times, the outcome has been a massive war. A thorough analysis and a practical strategy are of critical significance at this point. There are a number of areas in which US and China are at odds with each other. First and foremost is the conflict between North and South Korea. Those around the world, who think an impending war between these two powers is not possible in the near future, are mainly ignoring the events of the 1952 Korean War when Chinese troops actively engaged with the American army and pushed them back into the Southern regions of the pacific, fearing an advance towards Chinese borders. A de-stabilized Korean peninsula could be a tipping point or a ground to test their military strengths. The second issue is the South China Sea dispute and the presence of the American Navy in the region.

The International forums like the World Bank, WTO and the United Nations are heavily skewed in the favor of the US, which incites a vivid insecurity in the Chinese Government to resolve political disagreements. When negotiating systems fail, the only alternative left is either isolation or show of strength. The Chinese army designed on the principles of fighting to the end and not giving an inch of China to any foreign invader is a ready force as ever. The nuclear arsenal of the Chinese army is also tremendous. The mantra of the central government about the military is, “an army that can fight and win!”



On the other hand, the US Government is dealing with unknown waters; an opponent of equal strength. Soviet Union was merely a threat, whereas the Chinese Government is a might backed by numbers and a robust economy and national commitment. At present, a grave crisis is unfolding. Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are at cross roads. Trump accuses China of Intellectual Property violations and forcing large American and European businesses to setup their infrastructure in China, thereby enhancing trade deficits around the world in Western economies. The Americans call it, ‘the unfair advantage’. In an attempt to counter this deficit, the American Government has responded by raising taxes and tariffs on Chinese exports to the US. It must be kept in view that while maintaining their cultural and political differences and diplomatic disputes, the economies of these two nations is the only factor that kept them from a direct confrontation.

Until 2018, China and United States were major trading partners and their mutual economic gains streamlined other diplomatic ties. Trump’s protectionism will be a fatal blow to this stabilizing aspect. The Americans are the main financiers and policy makers behind World Trade Organization and the World Bank. Still, the Americans have openly violated WTO conventions on trade and tariffs and at the same time are pushing tougher measures against Chinese traders. It also seems that the US wants to play the role of the judge, jury and executioner while ignoring its own policies based on being the dominant economic power. The Chinese have responded by counter tariffs and looking for alternate avenues to continue their march towards economic dominance, one that does not involve WTO, World Bank and the United Nations. The One Belt One Road project is the engine on which the Chinese Government plans to accelerate its advance as the supreme nation of the world. In the words of Xi Jinping, “China is to become the strongest nation by 2049”, which is also the PRC central party manifesto. OBOR is a massive step that attempts to build a network of infrastructure, trade and multi-lateral ties by road and by sea. It is the actual embodiment of the ancient silk route. It will connect countries of Asia and Europe into one robust system of trade and commerce. It will usher in a new era of economic and diplomatic power and it will be one that the Americans cannot hope to counter. Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Russia are fully engaged to make One-Belt One-Road (OBOR) an outstanding success. For the first time, the Americans are in hesitation regarding their response to the economic potential of OBOR which could lead to fear and sense of insecurity. The way forward is not a trade war and bitter rivalry but mutual respect. As they say, “those who fail to study the past are condemned to repeat it”.

The trajectory of both nations needs to be realigned in order to avoid the Thucydides’ trap. If it happens, a war between China and the United States will be something that the world cannot sustain and it will be one that none of the parties can win. With weapons of mass destruction of unknown potential, a war would threaten humanity itself. Fire can only be put out with water, not with more fire. It can only be hoped that the future of these two great nations and a transition of power is shaped by respect and not by fear.

[box type=”note” align=”” class=”” width=””]The writer is Chairman of Jinnah Rafi Foundation[/box]

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