Graham Allison the Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and former Dean of its Kennedy School has written a thought provoking book that should keep leaders on both sides of the Pacific awake at night. To Allison the rise of China to challenge the United States is a replay of the ancient Peloponnesian War where “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that it instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable” in the memorable words of Thucydides. By going through sixteen case studies where a rising power challenged an incumbent power Allison is careful to note that war is not inevitable, but it is likely.
The most glaring case study is that of the rise of Germany in the late 19th century to challenge the hegemony of England and the parallel rise of post-1905 Russia to challenge Germany on the continent created so much fear among the parties that the spark of an assassination in the Balkans heralded the onset of World War I. In contrast the American challenge to England during the same time period led to a rapprochement between the two powers that exists through today. But what it took was England’s willingness to give America a free hand in the America’s. In the two cases I just cited economic rivalry preceded geopolitical rivalry.
So it is today with the U.S. and China. On purchasing power parity basis the Chinese economy is now larger than that of the U.S. and the fear of Chinese economic power is a constant drumbeat among American politicians. The question for the U.S. and China is the same that was presented to Sparta and Athens is whether or not an accommodation can be made. That would require either China pulling back on its ambitions to establish a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia or for the U.S. to accept the fact that Chinese ambitions are legitimate. Given what is going on with North Korea today it hard to tell whether diplomatic accommodations can be made. Of course for the U.S. to cede Southeast Asia to China there would have to a high degree of confidence that the Chinese goals are limited just as the U.S. goals towards Latin America were limited at the turn of the 20th century.
To accomplish a modus vivendi will take a lot of hard work and remember the rise of China economically left in its wake abandoned factories throughout America just as the rise of Germany placed great stress on the British economy in the late 1800s. It is not going to be easy, but Allison is asking the right questions and pointing us in the right direction.
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