A new round of grim thinking about the future of the relationship between the United States and China is making the rounds. Leading opinion columnists are admonishing parents to provide their children with Mandarin instruction. Despite this eager forward thinking, the United States’s most immediate concerns still lie in their more traditional homes: Europe and the Middle East.
A recent article in The Atlantic warns of “The Thucydides Trap” emerging between China and the US. Put simply, this trap is the tendency of emerging powers to fight wars with established ones named after the Greek historian and his observations of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. The authors conclude that between the US and China “war is more likely than not.”
This past summer also saw the release of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War which was advertised by its authors as an updated version of Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising with China and the US as the main belligerents and much of the action set in an occupied Hawaii.
This thinking is a small sample of how I imagine the United States must have felt between 1938 and 1941, knowing with certainty that it was just a matter of time until we were drawn into the inevitable reckoning. After all, the numbers don’t lie. China has four times the population of the United States and depending on which measure you use it has either the largest (PPP) or second largest (GDP) economy in the world.
I certainly cannot rule out a war or even a cold war between the United States and China in the 21st century. But I wonder how much good it would have done in 1938 to worry about the “inevitable” postwar rivalry with Stalin — which was very much foreseen — when the Axis controlled one third of the world.
Similarly, it seems wrong to direct so much energy at confronting a threat that is only giving the faintest signs of materializing when there are still manifest conflicts that directly and immediately impact American interests.
As stodgy and old fashioned as it may seem, Europe is still an important strategic theater for the United States and it is, arguably, as unstable now as it has been since World War II. Low-level conflict has torn Ukraine in two and an expansionist Russia has annexed the Crimea with the excuse that it was home to ethnic Russians, reminiscent again of 1938. Economic disruptions and now a massive wave of refugees have destabilized the European Union which faces collapse in the wake of a potential UK exit — an event which might itself trigger the division of the UK, the loss of a home for the UK’s Trident deterrent, and, therefore a huge change to the strategic balance in Europe.
And of course this ignores the most unstable theater of them all: the Middle East. The “Arab Spring” has left very few stable states in its wake and the human crisis in Syria is directly contributing to the instability in Europe in much more stark and direct way than westerners are used to. Whether you were for it or against it, post-deal Iran is likely to expand its involvement throughout the region as well. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are all, in varying degrees, failed states.
Meanwhile, the Chinese threat is drastically overrated. All of its ports are encircled by US allies. It has no blue water navy. It faces unfriendly confrontational nuclear powers to its southwest and north in India and Russia, its traditional rivals. Its stock market is in free fall and the rotten underbelly of its state may be showing signs of weakness after the corruption scandal unveiled by the recent port explosion. China is not trying to find lebensraum or even expand control over places where large numbers of ethnic Chinese live. China’s main territorial claims at this point are small rocks in the middle of the ocean. Unlike any of the cases mentioned in “The Thucydides Trap” the main driver of China’s economy is trade with its putative enemy. China’s main threat lies in its nuclear arsenal, which includes ICBMs with powerful warheads.
Indeed, the truth remains that nuclear powers almost never fire even a pistol at each other, much less a full war. Under the logic of nuclear strategy, as detailed by Paul Bracken in his The Second Nuclear Age, states operate much more cautiously — and have not had a direct conflict since the nuclear age. All of the cases since 1945 between nuclear powers mention in “The Thucydides Trap” have ended peacefully.
None of that applies in the Middle East where non-nuclear states and non-state actors are the main drivers of instability.
In summary, I would encourage all of those trendy Upper East Side preschools to teach Arabic instead of Mandarin.