Around 400 BCE, Thucydides analysed the history of Greek inter-city strife, and concluded that war is nearly inevitable between a rising power and the incumbent. This so-called Thucydides trap is not only difficult to say, but also anachronistic and misleading when it comes to the avoidable rivalry between China and America today.
Wednesday, 15 April 2020
China Will Never Rule the World
In scale and complexity, the competition between Sparta and Athens at Thucydides’ time, with a combined total population of a few hundred thousand at most, was tribal warfare. Using it to project the global dynamics between China and the US in the 21st century is no more relevant than modelling World War III after the Great Mafia War in Sicily.
More significantly, China’s foreign policy has been different from — even opposite to — Western imperial traditions for at least a couple of millennia.
Moral blather aside, most Western empires had rational motives to expand. Being small to moderate in size and population, they needed land, resources, and military vantage points. Some also sought control over lucrative trade routes which, ironically, often led to Persia, India and China. Powered by the industrial revolution, some small European nations experienced a quantum jump in military prowess and productivity, allowing them to colonise over unprecedented distances. But the underlying drivers had not changed.
On the other hand, China has never aspired to be a Western style imperial power for a simple, commonsensical, reason: there’s no benefit whatsoever for a country like China to run world affairs.
China reached its natural boundary millennia ago, and has been largely self-contained. Additional land and population would be a burden rather than an asset. Today’s outstanding disputes at its massive borders are mainly historical leftovers, not territorially driven. That’s why they can drag on perpetually if all parties involved are willing to let sleeping dogs lie for as long as they feel sleepy.
China’s national priority has always been internal consolidation rather than external conquer. For nearly all of China’s past, it tried to keep out rather than subjugate or colonise outsiders, even when it had overwhelming capability to do so. China built walls many centuries before the surname Trump first appeared, but claimed no intellectual property rights.
However, people with freebooting genes in their blood may find the Chinese approach suspicious. They can’t believe anyone would prefer labour over direct or indirect looting. They don’t realise that banditry is toxic and addictive to a nation.
Chinese traditionally care a lot about the long-term viability of future generations, which is arguably the only meaningful purpose of a human community. Moral repugnance aside, riches acquired through robbery and enslavement will certainly enfeeble and ruin future generations. Furthermore, with time, greed, indolence and stupidity multiply like pathogens in the system. America is now spending ten dollars on guns to grab five bucks worth of whatever as long as the money ends up in the right pockets. Their democracy needs to take arithmetic more seriously.
Historically, China’s economy was overwhelmingly domestic. Foreign countries had a hard time accessing the commercially reclusive Middle Kingdom. When Lord Macartney went there at the end of the eighteenth century, Emperor Qianlong told him China had everything already so, thank you, goodbye, George. Qianlong had no idea that technology was about to upend the world. The country soon paid a hefty price for that ignorance and arrogance.
Two centuries on, the world has long been interconnected by 19th century colonisers, irreversibly changed by industry and international trade. The Middle Kingdom had also reincarnated, and New China is finally embracing Lord Macartney’s free trade proposal. Brick by brick, China removes its historical barrier to commerce and exchange. All earthly neighbours are now potential friends and trading partners. Like it or not, humanity is now a community of common destiny. There’s no turning back. A few who remain allergic to Chinamen are more than welcome to kindly stay away. Don’t call us, and we won’t bother you in the foreseeable centuries. China as a country has more experience than anyone else in international distancing.
Few historical empires could afford China’s semi-reclusive attitude; the United States is ironically a notable exception. World domination makes no more sense to the USA than to China. It’s not to the national interests of mega countries with a self-sustaining domestic market to engage in piracy or neo-colonialism. Unfortunately, America has inherited a small nation mentality shaped under very different circumstances.
It’s time for Americans to wake up, calm down, and look inward. They are a big family of lucky people sitting on the richest land of the planet. The sensible thing to do in that position is consolidation and nurturing, rather than building a heritage of military piracy and financial swindling. America should focus on what’s best for their young country rather than ruining others, and work on strengthening future generations. Caring about one’s descendants, equipping them with useful skills is a basic animal instinct. If birds and monkeys can do that, so can Americans.
Rationalising the American ambition would make it a different country — truly great for the first time — and the world a safer place. Thucydides’ trap, fashionable more than two thousand years ago among tribal city states, is archaic and irrelevant in the 21st century.
James Tam 2020.04.12