War and peace in Asia

First, we were ushered into the echoing central area of the Great Hall of the People; then we were lined up on benches for a photo with the president. After a little while, Xi swept into the room and shook a few hands (“I touched him,” gasped Francis Fukuyama, the famous academic, in mock awe) — before posing for the photo.

A few minutes later, the president’s discourse began. Seated at the centre of a banqueting room, with a giant mural of the Great Wall of China behind him, chandeliers above him, and a semi-circle of former western leaders arranged in front of him, Xi began his remarks by reminding his visitors that “China is an ancient civilisation with over 5,000 years of history”. It was, in some respects, a boilerplate remark. Yet China’s awareness of its thousands of years of history is fundamental to the country’s understanding of itself. It also inevitably means that China, in some ways, sees the US as an upstart nation — a country that has been in existence for fewer than 250 years, a shorter lifespan than most Chinese dynasties.

Xi’s determination to rebuild the wealth and power of his nation was the central theme of his speech. One of his favourite slogans, which he tried out several times on his foreign audience, was “the great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. But he was also keen to reassure his audience that China’s rise would not lead to conflict with the outside world — “We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap — destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers,” he insisted.

Xi’s reference to “Thucydides’ trap” showed that he (or his staff) had been following the American debate about the rise of China. Graham Allison, a Harvard professor, had coined the phrase with reference to the ancient Greek historian’s observation that the war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC was caused by Sparta’s fears of a rising Athens. He has calculated that in 12 of 16 cases since 1500, the rivalry between a great power and a rising power had ended in war.

Despite Xi’s attempts at reassurance, there is no doubt that strategic tensions are rising between the US and China. Over the past year, China has attempted to re-enforce its disputed claims to most of the South China Sea by building artificial islands and military installations across the ocean. In response, the US navy has deliberately sailed through these disputed waters — prompting a furious rhetorical response in Beijing. Read more…

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