With Friends like these, who needs Enemies?
Let us start with a brief history on the very rocky relationship between China and the United States. These two countries, over the years, have been friends in some aspects while enemies in others. If one were looking for the perfect definition of “frenemy” look no further than these two global superpowers.
For the sake of brevity I’ll skip to U.S. and China relations post WWII. This is not to say nothing between the two countries occurred before then. Pre-WWII, I would describe the U.S. involvement in China as more bullying than anything, as evidenced with the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Boxer Rebellion. I’ve provided links on both these topics in case anyone interested would like to learn more about them.
Our relationship to China essentially seemed to be all but over in 1949 when Mao Zedong and his Communist followers drove the pro-American nationalist Chiang Kai-Sheck out of China and onto the island of Taiwan. The United States’ during the 50s and 60s, dedicated to a policy of halting Communist expansion, was hostile to China, fighting against the Chinese backed forces in Korea and Vietnam.
Then in 1972 the stars seemed to align when Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping took power. Xiaoping, a relative moderate, liberalized China’s economy while keeping the political power centralized. Xiaoping also realized that a successful Chinese economy would require a global economy and he opened his country up to the West. Richard Nixon, our current President at the time, deftly recognized this new Chinese openness and extended a friendly hand to the Communists as an attempt to weaken the USSR’s influence over the region. Despite being unpopular here, Nixon may be the most popular United States President ever in China. Despite the fact that presidents after Nixon were not as well liked by the Chinese, Nixon’s pro-Chinese legacy served to greatly improve the friendship between the two countries. The 70s and 80s after Nixon’s presidency were then dubbed the period of “Normalization” between Chinese and United States’ relations, as our relationship did just that: normalize.
The infamous Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 served as a dip in our relations due to economic sanctions China received for its human rights’ abuses. Other incidents like the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (which the Chinese still believe was intentional) in 1999 served to create an unsteady friendship, but a friendship none-the-less. A big issue that has been a cause of tension over the years is the status of Taiwan (the country that the disposed nationalists in China fled to after Mao Zedong’s victory).
While today, China is surely not our enemy, per say, anyone who would call China our friend is being fairly naïve. For one, China has been a tremendous burden on the U.S. economically. The Chinese manipulate the value of their currencies and their incredibly lax enforcement of international patent and copyright law leads to a country with little regulation and stolen businesses, hurting our economy in the process. Furthermore, while having a free economy, the liberties of the Chinese people are sincerely lacking. For one, they have no free elections. Local elections serve only as a rubber stamp to what the Chinese Communist Party wants and are only in place to trick Chinese people into thinking their voices can have an effect on policy. The Chinese also seem slightly to eager to jail/execute people with little evidence. Estimates suggest that the Chinese execute around 5,000 people a year, which is far more than any “free” country, should be doing. Finally, China is becoming increasingly closer to North Korea helping the country overcome the sanctions instituted through the international community. My ultimate point is that while not our enemy, make no mistake, China is not our friend.
Trump’s brave/careless move (You Decide)
It in this context of unsteadiness that Donald Trump has made a careless mistake or a brave action depending on who you ask. Trump essentially made a small courtesy call to the leader of Taiwan, the first time in 40 years a President or President-elect has talked with a Taiwanese leader. Why have Presidents not talked with Taiwan before? The politics surrounding it is very complicated, but essentially China does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country and still believe that this island technically belongs to them. To avoid angering China, the United States’ has, for the most part, ignored Taiwan and does not recognize the country as independent.
When Trump made the call, foreign policy leaders described it as an amateur mistake. China is extremely sensitive about the Taiwan issue and small instances like this could sever the U.S.’s ties with China. Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, describe Trump’s move as more of a brave and firm stance against China. A message to Beijing that Trump will be calling the shots from now on. “He wants to negotiate a new deal with China. Obviously this call does what he said he is going to do. He wants to shake up China,” said Michael Pillsbury, an author and China expert who has advised Trump, to CNN.
So what have been the results of this incident? The Chinese government, in a Global Times, editorial essentially told Trump that he was biting off more than he can chew. To no one’s surprise Trump responded in a few brief tweets calling out the Chinese government for their devaluing of currency and military build-up in the South China Sea. (In Trump’s defense, both these statements are actually true).
Is Trump in the process of orchestrating a genius new plan meant to make the United States dominant over China once and for all? No, of course not. Trump likely just forgot to do his homework and didn’t realize the intricacies of the U.S.-Taiwan-China relationship. If Trump’s plan here was sophisticated he would not be tweeting insults at the Chinese government. Trump’s tweets help no one except for Trump and his twitter followers. That being said, it is unlikely that this event will have broader implications for our relationship with China. China needs the United States for economic growth whether they want to admit it or not. What’s more, China has been given a gift from the gods in the form of the inexperienced Trump. If I was the Chinese Communist Party I would be ecstatic at the possibility of being able to manipulate Trump and his inexperience at foreign policy.
What we can learn from a Greek Historian and General
Graham Tillett Allison Jr, a political scientist and professor at Harvard University, coined the term “Thucydides Trap” to describe the inevitability of war between two superpowers that was originally put forward by the Greek historian and general, Thucydides. Essentially, the fear that a rising power causes in an established power leads to war. Or, as Thucydides wrote, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”
There have been 16 case studies done of countries that seemingly fell into this Thucydides Trap. If you would like to have a visual representation of the case study click here. Essentially in these 16 cases of new powers threatening the old powers, war resulted in all but 4 instances. This does not mean, though, that there is a 75% of the U.S. going to war with China. In fact, I would say the chance of a war between the two countries would be in the single digits if not impossible.
For one, let’s look at the cases where war did develop. (I highly recommend you check out the image I linked so you can follow along). Prior to the 1970s war resulted in all but one instance. Post 1970, war has yet to result. Tensions have been high and some may argue that proxy wars were common in some instances, but as for war on the traditional scale, it has yet to happen.
What this means, and what I firmly believe, is that our world, with its increased communications and powerful weapons, has reached an age of peace between superpowers. I sincerely do not think there will ever come a time on this earth when two countries, with enormous power, clash on a scale similar to that which they did in WWII. War will be common, but it will be fought among non-state actors like terrorists or against smaller states like North Korea, (which I due think is bound to happen at some point, hopefully it is before they get intercontinental nuclear weapons). Furthermore, the development of nuclear weapons by superpowers means that nations are extremely hesitant to declare war on a country that could literally wipe them off the face of the earth. The risk of total annihilation is to high, so no powerful nation, in their right mind, would engage with a fellow superpower.
Wars against China will be economic and diplomatic, and for our sake let us hope that Trump has developed a strong course of action in that regard.