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Growing tensions

June 04, 2020

Since the end of the Second World War, the US has loomed large over the international scene as the most powerful nation in the world, both economically and militarily.

Its preeminent position was confirmed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. For about 20 years thereafter, the US dominated the globe, unchecked by any other power. But with the dramatic rise of China’s economic power over the past four decades, the position has begun to change slowly against American global preeminence.

The Chinese economy surpassed the US economy in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms in 2014. If China is able to maintain its high rate of economic growth while the US economic growth remains sluggish, the Chinese economy will become the biggest economy in the world even in nominal dollar terms by 2030.

In the military field, China’s military expenditure, estimated to be $178 billion in 2020-21, is still far behind the US annual military expenditure which is currently about $738 billion. But if the present trends continue, China’s military expenditure may exceed that of the US by 2035. The US obviously views with serious concern China’s rapid military build-up. In the field of science and technology also, China is making rapid strides in the race to catch up and even surpass the US.

China is, thus, emerging as a formidable competitor to the US in economic strength, military power, and advancement in science and technology, which constitute the core elements of the national power and are the main determinants of a country’s position in the ranking of nations. Historically speaking, whenever a rising power has threatened the supremacy of the ruling power, tensions leading many a time to armed conflicts and wars were the result of that competition.

This is called Thucydides’s Trap; Thucydides, while writing about the Peloponnesian War, had pointed out, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable”. A recent Harvard study, reviewing the history of the past five hundred years, identified sixteen cases in which a rising power challenged a ruling power. Out of them, twelve resulted in war.

The fundamental cause of the growing Sino-US tensions, thus, is the threat that the US sees in the dramatic rise in China’s economic and military power. To contain China, the US has taken a number of steps. It is in the process of strengthening its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region to reassure its allies and friends and to deter China. It has taken steps to strengthen its alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia. It has also entered into a strategic partnership with India to contain the expansion of China’s influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. It is even trying to destabilize China internally.

Washington is also resisting China’s efforts to enhance its power and influence in international economic organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF, besides undermining China’s Belt and Road Initiative aimed at enhancing China’s economic connectivity and presence in the Eurasian region. The US has opposed the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with headquarters at Beijing as it sees in it an attempt to downgrade the importance of the World Bank and ADB in which the US has preponderant influence.

The US’s attempt to restrict the expansion of Huawei’s G5 technology outside China, its trade disputes with Beijing, and even the blame against China over the spread of the novel coronavirus also need to be seen against the background of this growing rivalry.

The existing global political and economic order is heavily tilted in favour of the US and other Western powers as reflected by the composition and rules of the UN Security Council, World Bank and IMF. It is inevitable that as China rises, it will demand modifications in the existing global order to accommodate its interests. It remains to be seen whether the US-led West accommodates China’s legitimate interests through peaceful means, which would involve painful compromises and concessions. The unwillingness of the US-led West to do so will consign the world to a prolonged period of tensions and conflicts with incalculable adverse consequences for international peace, security and progress.

The continued disregard of the recognized rules of inter-state conduct by the US and some other powers over the past two decades against the background of this growing rivalry portends growing world disorder. In such an unpredictable international scenario, Pakistan must pursue a policy of self-reliance and a comprehensive approach to safeguarding national security, which would assign the highest priority to rapid economic growth and advancement in science and technology while maintaining internal political stability and a credible security deterrent. A low risk and non-adventurous foreign policy will have to be part and parcel of such a grand strategy.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.

Email: javid.husain@gmail.com

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