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Hot War or Cold War?

Jul 29 , 2020

Mao’s famous line reminds us that “a single spark can start a prairie fire”. Could the sparks of today’s Cold War with China start a conventional or nuclear war?

Seemingly unthinkable, this thought of moving from our current cold relationship to a hot war with China would unleash turmoil and destruction in China, America and across the globe. It is the last thing the world needs now. Many China watchers would argue this is an unlikely scenario ­– and unwise.

The Thucydides Trap

More than 2,400 years ago, Athenian historian Thucydides warned the world with this insight: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.”

Coined by Graham T. Allison, former director of the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Thucydides Trap, is defined as the danger inherent with a rising power challenging the ruling power – not unlike what we are now witnessing between the United States and China.

The question of whether the two countries can escape the trap has plagued scholars, political scientists, foreign policy experts and academics since the beginning of China’s ascendency. The Atlantic explored this question a number of years ago in a magazine article and there have only been more hotspots added to the mix since then, particularly since American leaders began to fear that China’s rise could come at the U.S.’s demise.

In 2016, at the start of his candidacy for president, Donald Trump outlined an unrelenting offensive against Chinese economic practices, framing his then-contest with former Secretary of State and U.S. Senator, Hillary Clinton, as a choice between ”hard-edge nationalism and the policies of ‘a leadership class that worships globalism.’”

The temperature may reach a flashpoint before Trump leaves office – perhaps as a cynical ploy to help him hold onto power.

In office, Trump has stayed true to most of his campaign promises. Since taking office, he has shown little discipline, creating chaos through his presidency both at home and abroad. And in both the White House and the U.S. Senate, he has surrounded himself with China hawks and sycophants.

In a speech to the Hudson Institute in 2018, Vice President Mike Pence made it known that the Trump Administration was pivoting to a harder line with China: “Previous administrations all but ignored China’s actions – and in many cases, they abetted them. But those days are over.”

Yet, besides trade wars, trading insults, and blaming China for the COVID carnage across the globe, there has been no tangible benefit to the American people for all of Trump’s anti-China bluster.

War as Inevitable?

Now, a clear “Blame China” election strategy is being seen as a path to victory for a faltering Republican campaign devastated by Trump’s presidential missteps, the global pandemic and the economic tsunami it unleashed. In the midst of such low approval ratings, might a war with China be a desperate life-ring thrown to Trump’s re-election hopes?

In a recent speech, Trump once again has set the stage for going to war. Metaphorically, if not in actuality, he is laying the groundwork for an actual cold or hot war with China saying that “China’s pattern of misconduct is well known. China raided our factories, offshored our jobs, gutted our industries, stole our intellectual property, and violated their commitments under the World Trade Organization.”

The South China Sea – the main artery of global commerce – is one hot spot that could very well lead to a war between superpowers. This sea lane – a critical commercial, global, and economic gateway – is estimated to manage one-third of global shipping in its waters.  China views the South China Sea as its own personal bathtub.

The U.S. has sent not one, not two, but three 100,000-ton U.S. Navy aircraft carriers to the Pacific Ocean for the first time in years including to the South China Sea. As CNN reported, “Aircraft carriers are essentially giant floating symbols of dominance, so to have three of them around is quite a statement.”

Clearly, China is not happy with the U.S. military parade in its backyard and has forcefully stated they will defend their own interests in the region.

Wag the Dog

To date, Trump’s election strategists have blamed China, and increased division in America, flaming hatred and conflict between American citizens.

That old Wag the Dog strategy could purposely divert attention from what Americans truly want and need in our country to something else of lesser significance. To Trump, even a hot war with China pales in comparison to his need to hold onto power in November at any cost.

Trump has been insinuating that he is a  “wartime president” in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. His response to the Black Lives Matter movement -   by attemping to turn the U.S. Armed Forces into his personal instrument for enforcing order on the streets of America – definitely borders on the militaristic. 

All Politics are Local

China too has its domestic politics to consider and could equally fall into this war trap: its covenant with the Chinese citizens to continue to enrich their lives and provide economic security has been shaken. Even before COVID-19 came onto the scene, China’s leaders were contending with the country’s slowest pace of growth in nearly three decades and it has only gotten worse since.

It is not inconceivable China could escalate tensions by pushing the other two hot buttons: Taiwan or Hong Kong. Stoking the embers would create an opening for President Trump to gallop in on his white horse as the protector of “freedom and democracy”. Indeed, stirring up anti-U.S. nationalism could be a lifeline for China’s hardliners and President Xi in these troubling times in China.

In the past, the American people have been fooled into war to prop up political power. It is not inconceivable now. The fact that President Trump regularly lies makes this all the more likely. It should come as no surprise that the president and his team might trump up a conflict with China – that quintessential election year boogieman – to scare voters in a tight election.

Consider yourself warned: war with China has the potential to sink us all.

How does that float your boat?

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