The US and China on Collision Course in Asia
By Roilo Golez
13 February 2017
Our course Professor Miguel Centeno stated at the very outset in his welcome remarks that one must familiarize oneself with Thucydides, that “it is impossible to have a notion of war as practiced in the Western world without a familiarity” with Thucydides.
And immediately, I am reminded of the phrase “Thucydides Trap” coined by American political scientist Graham Allison to refer to when a rising power causes fear in an established power which escalates toward war.
In a recent 2015 article, Allison wrote: “The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power—as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago.” 1
Twenty years ago, there was only one superpower, the United States, virtually unchallenged to preside over Pax Americana.
Today, the world is becoming bipolar with China posing a serious challenge to the hegemony of the United States which, gleaned from the pronouncements of the Trump administration, is moving to counter China’s march towards altering the global balance of power, starting with the Asia Pacific region.
China President Xi has been often talking of the “China Dream.” What is the China Dream?
In his book “The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower,” Michael Pillsbury stated that the “China Dream” means China becoming the No. 1 power by 2049, 100 years after Mao took over China in 1949. Pillsbury is reported to be one of Trump’s security advisers.
Just like Athens in ancient times and Germany in the early 20th century, China went through rapid economic modernization after becoming a WTO member in 2001. Ironically, it was the US, under President Clinton, that helped China become a WTO member believing that a modern China would not only be good for the US economically as a trade partner, but would also be good for world peace expecting that a modern China would be a benign China like Germany and Japan after World War 2.
“GDP Annual Growth Rate in China averaged 9.76 percent from 1989 until 2016” 2.
This enabled China to overtake Japan as the world’s no. 2 economy with a 2016 GDP projected at around $11 Trillion compared to the US GDP of $18 Trillion and Japan’s $4.1 Trillion.
With great economic power comes great military power. China is now ranked the No. 3 most powerful military in the world behind the US (No. 1) and Russia (No. 2).
Here’s a comparison of the military strength of the US and China (source IISS):
In quantity and quality, the US military is still way ahead but the US now considers China as a “near peer” and must take measures to prevent parity in power.
It has become clear that China’s strategy is to push out the US from the South China Sea by declaring its own brand of the Monroe Doctrine for the Asia Pacific Region. China’s aim is to push the US out of the South China Sea and outside the so-called First Island Chain. A vital part of this bold initiative is its excessive nine-dash line claim that it has sovereignty over around 90% of the South China Sea.
The theater of conflict goes beyond the South China Sea. With China’s economic and military rise, it is expected that “friction between the U.S. and China will no longer be limited within the geographical boundaries of the Asia-Pacific region, instead the U.S. and China will find themselves increasingly in zones of global competition. 3
The Thucydides Trap in now unraveling. The Obama administration countered by announcing the US pivot to Asia, declaring that 60% of US naval power will be concentrated in Asia by shifting naval assets from Europe and the Middle East. 4
However, the pivot was not backed by military muscle.
China continued its march with their artificial islands building spree in the Spratlys. China’s aim is to establish a Strategic Triangle in the South China Sea by further militarizing their islands in the Paracels, followed by militarizing its artificial islands in the Spratlys and eventually constructing also on Scarborough Shoal which China seized in 2012. 5
On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration declared the nine-dash line illegal in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and ruled in favor of the Philippines.
However, China demonstrated its disdain for the Rule of Law, rejected the PCA ruling and responded to the ruling by sending a nuclear capable bomber over the EEZ of the Philippines over the disputed Scarborough Shoal. It was a challenge not just to the Philippines but to the US which has a mutual defense treaty sith the Philippines. 6, 7
The security situation heated up many degrees with the victory of Donald Trump whose assertiveness can match Xi’s ambitions.
Even during the campaign, Trump’s rhetoric had been very strong against China. This heightened during the January 12, 2017 confirmation hearing of Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson who declared that China “should be barred from artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.” 8
Immediately, Chinese media responded with a warning: “Chinese Media Has Told Rex Tillerson to 'Prepare for a Military Clash’ setting the stage for a “collision course” between the two great powers, as Thucydides predicted to be the normal behavior of the hegemon and the rising power. 9
Tensions have abated when US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated in Tokyo on February 4, 2017 that there was no that "At this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all," stressing that “the focus should be on diplomacy.” 10
China’s responded positively to Mattis’s statement and this was reported well in the world media: “China welcomes Mattis' emphasis on South China Sea diplomacy.” ignoring Mattis’s additional words of caution to China, about China’s penchant for "shredding the trust of nations in the region.” 11
In spite of the diplomatic exchange, what we witness is a potential clash of great powers never before seen in history.
President Xi fans China’s nationalism with his “China Dream.” President Trump responds with his “America First.” Precisely what our Professor Centeno argues: "So nationalism or patriotism may be seen as military religions, as way of trying to convince particular soldiers that their cause is right."
While China continues its military march, even parading its first aircraft carrier into the Western Pacific near Taiwan and Japan, President Trump promised through his Secretary of Defense “…a military that is so lethal that on the battle field it will be the enemy's longest day & worst day when they run into that force.” 12
Japan, the strongest ally of the US in the Pacific, is also rearming with the acquisition of 42 F-35 multirole fighters to add to their already robust Air Force and Navy in the East China Sea. Faced with the China threat, India in the East is likewise rearming to neutralize China’s strategic offensive in the Indian Ocean.
Our course asks: Is a global state of peace possible?
With the array of the world’s biggest powers and the most lethal weapons known to mankind converging in the Indo Pacific area, world peace is at risk like never before. A major miscalculation in the air or at sea could start it all.
China has aggressive President Xi who ran circles around peace striving President Obama. But this time Xi faces an equally assertive American leader in Donald Trump who made it his campaign pledge to make the world respect the US under his presidency.
The Thucydides Trap now unravels.
1 Graham Allison. “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic. September 24, 2015
3 China’s Military Strategy. Real Clear Defense http://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2015/06/16/chinas_military_strategy__108073.html
4 THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION'S PIVOT TO ASIA as articulated by US Department of State Assistant Secretary Campbell. The Foreign Policy Initiative. http://www.foreignpolicyi.org/content/obama-administrations-pivot-asia).
5 The Strategic Triangle That Would Allow Beijing to Control the South China Sea. Quartz. https://qz.com/775382/all-eyes-are-on-the-scarborough-shoal-the-reef-rimmed-lagoon-that-would-allow-...
6 Beijing rejects tribunal's ruling in South China Sea case. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/12/philippines-wins-south-china-sea-case-against-china
7 “Beijing flies nuclear bomb jet over South China Sea as it ramps up tensions with the US.” The Sun UK. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1464169/beijing-flies-nuclear-bomb-jet-over-the-south-china-sea-as-it-ramps-up-tensions-with-the-us/).
8 'No access': Rex Tillerson sets collision course with Beijing in South China Sea. The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/12/no-access-rex-tillerson-sets-collision-course-beijing-south-china-sea).
10 “Mattis says no need for dramatic U.S. military moves in South China Sea.” Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-southchinasea-mattis-idUSKBN15J061.
12 General 'Mad Dog' Mattis Crushes It at Senate Hearing. PJ Media. https://pjmedia.com/video/general-mad-dog-mattis-crushes-it-at-senate-hearing/