Thucydides attributed the war that tore apart the ancient Greek world to two reasons: the rise of Athenian power and the fear it created in the established power of Sparta. To avoid a new hot or cold war, the United States and China must avoid exaggerated fears and misperceptions about changing power relations.
CAMBRIDGE – When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently called for the reestablishment of bilateral ties with the United States, a White House spokesman said the United States views the relationship as strong competition that requires a strong position. It’s clear that President Joe Biden’s administration is not just reversing Trump’s policies.
NOURIEL ROUBINI is concerned that the recovery in the US is heading for another wave of market frenzy that will worsen Main Street.
Referring to Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Sparta’s fear of the rise of Athens, some analysts believe that the US-China relationship entered a period of conflict that pitted an established hegemony against an increasingly powerful opponent.
I’m not that pessimistic. In my opinion, economic and ecological interdependence reduces the probability of a true cold war, it is not a very hot war, because both countries have incentives to cooperate in various areas. At the same time, miscalculation is always possible, and some see the danger of “sleepwalking” into disaster, as in the First World War.
History is full of cases of misperceptions about shifting balances of power. For example, when President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, he wanted to balance what he saw as a growing Soviet threat to America in decline. But what Nixon interpreted as a decline was that America’s artificially high share of world production actually returned to normal after World War II.
Nixon declared multipolarity, but this was followed by the end of the Soviet Union and America’s unipolar moment two decades later. Today, some Chinese analysts underestimate US resilience and predict China’s dominance, but that could also be a dangerous miscalculation.
It is equally dangerous for Americans to overestimate or underestimate the power of China, and the United States includes groups with economic and political incentives to do both. Measured in dollars, the Chinese economy is about two-thirds the size of the US economy, but many economists expect China to overtake the US in the 2030s, based on assumptions about China’s growth rates. and the USA.
Will American leaders accept this change in a way that allows for a constructive relationship, or will they succumb to fear? Will Chinese leaders take more risks or will the Chinese and Americans learn to cooperate in the production of global public goods under a changing distribution of power?
Let us remember that Thucydides attributed the war that destroyed the ancient Greek world to two reasons: the emergence of a new power and the fear that it creates in the installed power. The second reason is just as important as the first. The United States and China must avoid exaggerated fears that could create a new hot or cold war.
National income is not the only measure of geopolitical power, even if China surpasses the United States to become the world’s largest economy. China is far behind the United States in soft power, and US military spending is nearly four times that of China. As China’s military capabilities have increased in recent years, analysts carefully scrutinizing the military balance conclude that China cannot exclude the United States from the Western Pacific.2
On the other hand, the US was once the world’s largest commercial economy and the largest bilateral lender. Almost 100 countries consider China as their largest trading partner, while today it is 57 for the United States. While China plans to lend more than $ 1 trillion to infrastructure projects with the Belt and Road Initiative over the next decade, the United States has cut aid. China will gain economic power both from the size of its market and from its development aid and investment abroad. China’s overall power relative to the United States is likely to increase.1
Still, it’s hard to judge the balance of power. The United States will retain some of its long-term energy advantages that conflict with China’s areas of vulnerability.
One is geography. America is surrounded by oceans and neighbors who are likely to remain friends. China borders 14 countries and regional disputes with India, Japan and Vietnam put limits on its hard and soft power.
Energy is another area in which the United States has an advantage. Ten years ago, the United States depended on imported energy, but the rock revolution transformed North America from an energy importer.
The United States also has demographic advantages. It is the only major developed country expected to be (third) in the world ranking in terms of population. While the US population growth rate has slowed in recent years, it will not turn negative like in Russia, Europe, and Japan. Meanwhile, China is right to fear “getting old before you get rich.” India will soon overtake it as the most populous country and its workforce will peak in 2015.
The United States also continues to be at the forefront of key technologies (bio, nano, information) that have been critical to 21st century economic growth. China invests heavily in research and development and competes well in some areas. However, 15 of the top 20 research universities in the world are located in the US None of them are in China. Pax Sinica and those who declare the fall of the United States do not take into account all sources of power. American arrogance is always a danger, but so is exaggerated fear that can lead to overreaction. Equally dangerous is rising Chinese nationalism, and this, combined with a belief in American decline, leads China to take greater risks. Both parties should pay attention to miscalculations. After all, often the greatest risk we face is our own capacity for error.
Translated by: Can İlker, economist, author of ParaAnalysis