Two superpowers USA and China are battling a battle without big guns — trade war.Trade allows a country to accumulate wealth thus to invest in military might. But, will the clash of the giants reach to a real battlefield? China is set to topple USA with trade to claim its position as the ultimate superpower, writes Imran Nazir
USA and China are the most powerful hegemons in terms of economic muscle and military might in this globalised world. They have already started full scale trade war from July 2018. These two superpowers are also engaged in many issues of conflict. Many analysts, academics and researchers are writing everyday on this issue but end of this war is far way.
After all, it is pretty sure that this trade war is not so an ordinary economic dispute rather a game of trillions of dollars and power mobilisation in world politics. A man with deep knowledge will not intend to conclude that this trade war is the only result of headlong Trump.
Scholars tend to measure this war in terms of money and psyche of political leaders and their advisors. I will take a different stance to explore this war. I think it is history who can let us know the main reasons of this trade war.
Thucydides, an Athenian political analyst and founding father of realism, can help us to review political struggle among top ranking powers. He wrote about the political competition between contemporary rivals Sparta and Athens in his famous book The History of Peloponnesian War. He was a military general of Thrace province under Athens. There was a lengthy war named Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens from 431 BCE to 403 BCE. Readers should know that in that time Sparta was established superpower while Athens was an emerging superpower.
Thucydides could not prevent Spartans from invading Thrace in the year of 8th of Peloponnesian War. Athenians fired Thucydides for his failure and forced to exile. Thucydides did not sit idly rather started to analyse this deadly war. He wrote about power balance and power transition among superpowers. Thucydides gave the most important insight about their rivalry which is applicable to any power competition.
He showed how Sparta was afraid of emerging power of Athens and created insecurity in return. Sparta had no way to abolish Athens for its greater security and maintain status quo. Athens was also arrogant and audacious to change status quo and give a big blow to decadent Sparta. In this war, both empires were very impatient to show their power. Very soon they created leagues with near allies.
Sparta was leading Peloponnesian league while Daniel league led Athens. Only deadly battle was possible way to define who is to rule. There is an interesting fact behind previous relations between Sparta and Athens. In Greco-Persian War (499-449 BCE), Sparta and Athens fought under united force to defeat foreign power. See how former brothers became life taking enemies within two decades. That is the reason why realists say today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy! International politics has not changed an inch even from Thucydides’ era.
Power shift in international system has always been bloody and cruel. We do not have to go far away to justify this statement. In the 18th century, France and Britain were two most prominent rivals fighting over European domination. They took the strategy of mercantilism and absolutism.
They both sought to extend their domination beyond Europe through colonialism. Those who studied seven years war would understand very easily how Britain and France waged war head to head in three continents at the same time. Someone may be surprised to know that the battle of Boxer in Bengal was also a part of great power rivalry! Britain and France were confined to an endless war for decades until the collapse of Napoleon in Waterloo. Even Napoleon banned British products both at home and colonies.
Napoleon imposed embargo on British trading ships at that time. There was great economic dependency between France and Britain. For instance, Britain supplied shoes for Napoleon’s soldiers. These mutual exchanges were not enough to prevent outbreak of war because both thought themselves as capable of dominating force.
Rise of China becomes a rift for US hegemony. China has geared up its military and economic power within last few decades. Chinese rise made USA afraid of losing its lofty position as the most powerful country. So called western alliance is in division under US leadership. Last NATO summit ended up with conflicts and bitterness.
Trump has imposed economic sanction on its close allies which makes us understand that the treasury of US dollar is in decline. USA also withdrew from many humanitarian forums to curtail extra budget. US hegemony is past now. China took the chance and closed its ties with western alliance to challenge US power. Trump is driving USA towards isolationism.
Trade war between China and USA has started for nearly a year now. It is not a general economic competition rather a US strategic policy to destroy Chinese economy in its germination from the view of international relations. Theoretical explanation can make it clearer.
There are two schools in IR. Liberals think that free market economy helps to bring world peace and cooperation through economic dependency. Market will be aside from political sphere without any state intervention. A sub brunch of realism thinks that economy is also a tool of political domination because economic power can be converted to military might.
Money is inevitable to run war machine. Economic aggression leads to military aggression. USA created many American and African countries insolvent in 1970s and 1980s through international economic organisations. This bankruptcy opened a door of military deployment to extract natural resources.
Now China is following the beaten path of USA to exploit African economy through debt trap. Free trade has provided a great opportunity for China to expand its economy worldwide. China has deployed its first military base in Djibouti in 2017. ‘Made in China 2025’ policy of China is to capture every single market of the world.
USA has a lot to fear from this kind of policy. There is a good example to justify how economic power leads to military aggression. Even before a decade ago, China did not demand the South China Sea in such an illogical way. Since the economy of China started to expand, China has created an artificial island with military deployment. US threats could not prevent China from nuclearising this island.
One Belt One Road initiative is a part of Chinese political-economic strategy. Rising China’s activities make USA uncomfortable. Chinese Communist Party appointed Xi Jinping as the President for life. It is natural and rational for USA to intervene incursive China. Trade has become the best tool for USA to weaken China.
Economic statistics can help us to rationalise all those standpoints given above. Although, United States of America is the largest economy in the world. But recent Chinese development was disproportionate. International Monetary Fund IMF provided data in 2018 shows that USA owns 20.4 trillion dollars which was 1 trillion higher than last year (2017). I mean, USA extended only 1 trillion dollar.
China gives a big jump here. China accumulates 14 trillion, which has seen 2 trillion dollar increase in 2018 from 12 trillion dollar in 2017. So it is very clear to us that US economy is losing its lofty position to China. Also another forecast shows that in 2019 US economy is expected to see 17.7 per cent growth while Chinese economy might get 35.2 per cent.
US feeding international monetary organisation IMF thinks that China economy will suppress US economy by 2050. Trump thinks that since Chinese economic growth has a large dependency on USA, so Donald Trump can use the trump card to win this rough economic and political battle.
There is no definite winner or loser in a trade war. Trump had to take the risk to exterminate Chinese economy to regain US supremacy. It is unquestionable that Trump should not have irritated US allies at the same time battling China. China is taking every single opportunity to fill the vacuum USA creates. Already US allies are closed to Beijing in terms of trade and investment. So it will be very hard for USA to make China loyal to USA.
There is a maxim in international relations that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. In 1971, Nixon administration recognised China so that it could help USA to prevent the spread of Russian communism. But now USA is more afraid of China than Russia. This is the repetition of the context of the Peloponnesian War in which Sparta and Athens were united once but became hostile very soon.
So let’s see what happens in this rivalry. Will it be confined to trade war or direct confrontation? Time will say everything.
Imran Nazir is studying international relations at University of Dhaka.