The Thucydides Trap

This article first appeared in The Anvil, Vol 10 No 1, published 28 Feb 2021.

Australian, US & Japanese Warships in the South China Sea (Credit: US Navy)

The US became the dominant world power in 1945. Despite everything since then, the world order it established is intact and the US remains far and away the most powerful country. Although its wealth and power relative to the rest of the world has been declining for decades, still no single power is able to challenge it. But US security in its hegemony may be about to change. And that creates a dangerous international situation.

Previous rival the USSR had a comparable population to the US, but it ran into structural economic difficulties in the 1960s. It eventually stagnated and collapsed under US pressure. Germany and Japan, both with populations a small fraction of the US, found their rise halted before their GDP per capita came anywhere near it. The European Union, which is large enough, hasn’t been able to create the necessary internal unity to mount a challenge.

China, though, has four times the US population. Its GDP per capita is about a sixth of the US, which brings its total GDP, and thus its weight in the world economy, within striking distance. Its growth rate is still substantially above the US. Even if its GDP per capita stalls at half that of the US in coming decades, its total GDP would still be double the current imperialist hegemon. US dominance would not survive that situation.

This prospect is, of course, intolerable to the US ruling class. It’s why Congressional Democrats and Republicans have been on a unity ticket on China issues in recent years. And so US complaints about China’s activities go well beyond its genuine bad behaviour. They extend to China’s initiatives to develop global leadership in key industries and to set up its own international relationships.

With this background, it is significant that the Sydney Morning Herald published an article on 14 January, headed “Trump ignored a strategy to contain China and strengthen India alliance”. It was based on a recently declassified US government strategy document produced in 2018. A few details of the strategy stand out. Firstly, the US does have a policy to contain China. It’s geopolitical and not fundamentally driven by China’s behaviour. Secondly, containment involves keeping China behind the first island chain, including Japan, the Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan. This is a very aggressive posture.

Thirdly, while Trump largely agreed with the intent of the strategy, he disliked anything that interfered with exercising personal rule over his administration and the US generally. Since Biden has no such hang-ups, we now can expect the February 2018 document to be largely followed. And finally, Australia has a strong role as part of the “Quad”, along with Japan and India.

Separate from the specific document, the article made assertions about China that are standard in the Australian media these days. It assumed “the existential threat of a rising China” and alleged China engaged in currency manipulation and unfair trading practices. China’s efforts to influence its exchange rate are no more significant that those of the US or Australia and for the same reasons. And the “unfair trading practices” mentioned are China’s insistence on technology transfer as part of investment deals and claims that China’s intellectual property arrangements are insufficiently stringent to satisfy Western patent holders. As consistent opponents of intellectual property, the MACG can advise these Western patent holders to jump in the lake.

The article’s most disturbing statement, though, was that a rising China is an “existential threat” to Australia, Japan and other unnamed countries. These are fighting words. States go to war over existential threats. It amounted to saying China can’t be allowed to become an industrialised country. The workers and peasants of China must remain poor so that Australian capitalism can continue to exist.

The Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group condemns the attempt by Australian and US imperialism to contain China and prevent its development. We carry no water for the Beijing Stalinists, who are brutal tyrants and whose national chauvinism reaches genocidal proportions when dealing with the Tibetans and Uighurs. We advocate workers’ revolution to bring down the Chinese so-called “Communist” Party and establish libertarian communism. But the attempt to contain China and keep it poor is immoral in principle and also, if it fails, likely to lead to war in practice. If the US can’t stop China’s development by economic means, it will find itself in the Thucydides Trap. The established power fears being overtaken by a rising one, so the temptation to take pre-emptive military action will be compelling.

We cannot let this come to pass.