Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

An ancient trap awaits China and US

China United States trade war and American tariffs or Chinese tariff as two cargo ships as an economic taxation dispute over import and exports concept as a 3D illustration.
Globe Staff/Adobe Stock

A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, World War I was entering its final phase. No one in either Berlin or London had set out to expend so vast a quantity of blood and treasure on four years of industrialized slaughter. As I argued 20 years ago in “The Pity of War,” World War I was perhaps the greatest error of modern history.

Historians often look back to the events of the 1890s and 1900s in an effort to trace the origins of the Anglo-German antagonism. The long-established narrative goes something like this: The German economy was overtaking the British economy, a trend summed up in the words “Made in Germany” that were stamped on a rising proportion of imported manufactures.

Germany had imperial ambitions, too, acquiring colonies in Asia and Africa. And it was building a fleet that was obviously intended to rival the Royal Navy.

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Increasingly, as their economy boomed, the Germans argued that their political system — in which the parliament (the Reichstag) had much less power than its British equivalent, and the monarch much more power — was intrinsically superior. Their material successes bolstered an already deep-rooted nationalism.

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The ultimate result was that Britain and Germany followed the ancient example of Sparta and Athens: the incumbent power and the rising power ended up going to war. The Harvard political scientist Graham Allison calls it the “Thucydides trap,” after the historian of the Peloponnesian War.

Are the United States and China on the way to repeating this classic historical mistake? Having just spent a fascinating week in Beijing and Shanghai, I fear they may be.

China’s economy has already, by at least one measure, overtaken that of the United States. The Chinese have come up with a strategy to catch up in terms of technology, too. It’s called “Made in China 2025.”

President Xi Jinping has his own version of the Germans’ imperial Weltpolitik: the Belt and Road Initiative, which implies a global expansion of Chinese infrastructure and influence.

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The People’s Liberation Army is busily building up its forces, with the goal (as one Chinese official told me last week) of having the world’s strongest military by the time the People’s Republic celebrates its centenary, in 2049.

Like the Germans a century ago, the Chinese no longer worry that Anglophone democracy might be superior to their political system. As for nationalism, there is no mistaking its growing importance, especially on social media. “There is also a Chinese populism,” I was warned.

Yet, as the events of 1918 proved, Germany overestimated itself and underestimated Britain. I fear some Chinese are beginning to make this mistake about the United States, with the encouragement of other Asians. My old friend Kishore Mahbubani, formerly Singapore’s representative at the United Nations, has just published a punchy little book entitled “Has the West Lost It?” His answer is a blunt “Yes.”

Such talk encourages a certain bravado in Beijing. Chinese officials I met with insisted that they could withstand a trade war. Several made the argument that such a war would not last long anyway because the American democratic system would undermine the US negotiating position. Were not the midterm elections a mere six months away?

It is indeed possible that President Trump’s “Art of the Deal” will be defeated by the rather more subtle “Art of War,” immortalized by the ancient Chinese sage Sun Tzu. Yet the reality is that the Chinese depend more on the current global trade arrangements than the Americans do and stand to lose significantly more in a trade war.

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Moreover, China’s economy is not quite as strong as it may appear. The Chinese people toil under a vast debt mountain. After decades of abundance, China’s workforce is now shrinking and the population aging in ways that are strongly reminiscent of Japan in the 1990s. That surely points to lower growth in the future.

Western observers tend to take the rise of Xi Jinping at face value, assuming that the concentration of power in his hands is a sign of strength. Perhaps it is. But I was very struck by the observation of one former minister that Xi’s ascendancy had averted a major political crisis in 2012. He had “saved the party, the country, and the military” — presumably from a drastic decline in popular legitimacy stemming from rampant corruption.

A state that requires dictatorship to be stable is not as strong as it looks — just as one based on individual liberty is not as weak as it looks.

There are two ways this can now go. The United States and China can fall together into the Thucydides trap, starting with a trade war and escalating into a real one. The alternative is what Henry Kissinger in his book “On China” called “co-evolution.” That second route is not going to be easy. But it surely must be preferable to repeating the history of the Anglo-German antagonism.

An increasingly rigid alliance system, Kissinger argued in his book “Diplomacy,” condemned Britain and Germany to war in 1914. Today’s statesmen in Washington and Beijing must eschew rigidity. To repeat the mistakes that sent my grandfather to the hell of the Flanders fields would be — to put it mildly — a pity.

Niall Ferguson is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.