Is a U.S.-China hot war imminent?｜Lee Yee
In July, Pompeo claimed the American policy towards China is harsher than the one towards the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. The approach has been shifted from “listening to its words and watching its deeds” to “ignoring its words and only watching its deeds”. Recent developments show that the U.S. is striding closer and closer to a complete de-linkage with China. The recall of the ambassador from China was just a prelude. What followed was the U.S. official interpretation that “one China policy” is not equivalent to “one China principle”, plus the emphasis that “the U.S. holds no specific standpoint towards the sovereignty of Taiwan”. Furthermore, during the visit of Krach, U.S. Under Secretary of State, Tsai Ing-wen stated that “Taiwan has the determination to take the critical step”. Adding fuel to this, Hsiao Bi Khim, Taiwan’s delegate at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S., introduced herself as the “Taiwan Ambassador to the U.S.” on Twitter. In view of all these, is the U.S. going to establish diplomatic relation with Taiwan? Will it turn out to be the “October surprise” before the U.S. presidential election? In response, China dispatched fighter jets to violate the airspace of Taiwan, and as “Global Times” put it, “this was not a gesture of warning, but an actual combat exercise of attacking Taiwan”. In return, Taiwan authority urged China “not to underestimate its armed forces' resolve in safeguarding Taiwan”. As tension keeps building up across the Strait, will the U.S. intervene and finally trigger a U.S.-China hot war?
For the last few months, while analyzing the situation, quite a few observers have drawn upon the “Thucydides trap” originated from an ancient Greek historian. According to this theory, when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as an international hegemony, there will be an unavoidable tendency towards war.
To be frank, these observers may have well overestimated the strength of China. Thanks to its huge population, China has become the second largest economic entity in the world. But we are now living in an era that national strength is rather defined by technological advancement. In reality, China is militarily inferior to Russia and technologically lagging far behind major western countries. To put it simply, China is yet to be capable of challenging the American dominance.
Back in the 1980s, in the heyday of its economic development, Japan has significantly outperformed the U.S. in the capital market, and some American scholars have come to the “Japan No.1” conclusion. Despite this, there was never a sign of military confrontation between U.S. and Japan. A decade later, the formation of the European Union posed new challenge to the American supremacy. But again, the two did not come anywhere close to a war. So why has the emergence of China, which in fact lacks the capabilities to overwhelm the U.S., aroused much anticipation of war?
Rudolph Rummel, an American professor of political studies, have made a thorough analysis on the correlation between wars and democracy in human history. After humans surviving a thousand years of darkness, it was not until the independence of the U.S. in 1776 that unveiled a democratic institution with public elections, separation of powers, multi-party system as well as freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly. After more than a hundred years, in 1900 there were only 13 democratic countries in the world. And after another decade, in 2015 the rose to 130, and dictatorial states without meaningful elections have become the minority.
According to Rummel’s statistics, there were 371 wars between 1816 and 2005. Among them, 205 were fought between two dictatorial countries and 166 between democratic and dictatorial ones. Interestingly, there had not been a single war between democratic countries. The conclusion is all too obvious: if there were only democratic states on earth, wars would not happen.
And here lies the fundamental reason why the “Thucydides Trap” has been more valid in the old days when dictatorial systems prevailed, but has failed to apply in contemporary cases between two democratic countries. And it also explains why the competitions between the U.S. and Japan or the EU have not led to any war, while the challenge from China will probably end up differently.
In a democratic system, to wage a war requires a consensus among the government, legislature, media and public opinion. It is rather a matter of the people’s collective will than the ruler’s subjective decision. Whereas within a dictatorial structure, no approval from the legislature is needed, media and public opinion are never respected and judicial challenge simply does not exist. A dictator or oligarch can just go to war at will.
From a dictator’s point of view, whether to enter a war or not is not subject to external circumstance, but the domestic status of his ruling. When a dictator’s position gets shaken by severe economic downturn and widespread public discontent, he will try to divert domestic dissatisfaction by means of foreign maneuvers. The dictator tends to single out those “non-conforming groups”, as so identified by the “little pink” Chinese patriots, and tries bullying them, as what the CCP is doing in India, Hong Kong and Inner Mongolia. The objective is to distract attention with extreme nationalism. More often than not, stirring up external instability has become a tactic to secure domestic stability of the dictator’s rule.
Perhaps a shrewd dictator will weigh up the strength of his counterpart before taking action. Nevertheless, the intrinsically defective system may hinder the dictator from understanding the reality and accessing different views. And personal intellectual and intelligent inadequacies may also breed unrealistic self-inflating belief. The resulted stupidity can make a tragedy more imminent than everyone may expect.
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