The Coming Clash with China?

A special lecture "The Coming Clash with China?" by Professor Christopher Coker from London School of Economics (LSE) and a panel Discussion on "The South China Sea Controversy: The Role of ASEAN, China and the United States", organized by the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) at Chulalongkorn University on 30 Aug.

Panelists include: Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand; Robert W. Fitts, Director, American Studies Program; Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director, ISIS Thailand. 

The prospect of war between the US and China is being debated. Coker has remarked that in order to avoid war, we have to talk about it, and the point of the event's lecture is to address a 'possibility,' not a 'probability' of war between the US and China.

There has been a narrative that the prospect of war between major powers is at an end. These authors include John Mueller and his books, for example, Remnants of War, and Retreat from Doomsday. It is fashionable to talk about the impossibility of war between great powers, and of the period after the end of the Cold War and after the 9/11 incident as the period of the 'demilitarisation of interstate relations.'

However, Coker points out that in 1910 no one believed there would be a war, and yet the First World War broke out. Coker draws an analogy between today's China and Germany in 1913. By that time Britain was already a declining power and trying to manage its decline and domestic political crisis, which was arguably prevented by WWI. In the run up to WWI, Britain accepted its decline. Germany, on the other hand, was overheated, as is China today, in terms of rapid urbanisation and social transformation. Germany in 1913 was an illiberal democracy where the army had a privileged position in society and in politics. Germany was in a hurry to be as powerful as quickly as possible and nationalism was running strong. There is, therefore, an interesting historical parallel between Germany and China.

However, a caveat is that history is useful only up to some point. WWI was an age of globalisation. Paul Krugman points out that the world was more globalised in 1913 than it is today in various criteria: transnational capital flows, movement of people, commodity price convergence, credit markets and bond markets, and real money supported by gold. Norman Angell even argued that the international credit system made war obsolete.

The world today sees other possibilities of war, for example between the US and Iran, Israel and Iran, or India and Pakistan, but the Sino-US war will be a big one which affects the balance of world politics. The first point to be made is there is no reason why it will not happen. The second point is the future depends much on what the story of war would be like. It is true that was not only becoming unprofitable and embarrassing, reflected in the change of name from the Ministry of War into the Ministry of Defence. Nevertheless, for the US, war is a democratisation project. War is sometimes seen as the only way to materialise democratisation projects. The idea originated in Britain in 1856 when the moral legitimacy of war between Britain and China (i.e. the Opium War) was being discussed. Some saw it as a way to civilise China and open it to western ideas through opening markets. Karl Marx recognised that war was a way to seize the moral high-ground. One can legitimise going to war by saying they go to war for other people, not for themselves.

The question, then, is in what ways the US and China might legitimise war. A narrative worth looking at is war is a way of recreating the Sino-sphere, or if one believes in US exceptionalism then one has a reason to think that war is a legitimate principle. An argument is made about war being a deterrence. There is an explanation that WWI broke out because Germany was not arming enough. Arms race is a way to maintain the balance in the international system. When 60% of the US budget is concentrated on the Pacific, directed towards Asia, one can question if the US is trying to maintain the balance? Coker asserts that when the system breaks down, it does so quickly - in months - as in 1914 and in 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed.

A point made here is great power conflict can be avoided, but what is worth considering is to be careful of optimism. Coker argues that optimism is itself problematic. There is far too much optimism in economics: the belief in rationality as the basis of economics research and model, a belief in perfect market economy. But human being is irrational most of the time. Human being misjudges intention and miscalculates the risk. The worst problem with optimism is the experts themselves are overconfident about their capability and rationality. For John Mueller, war is as obsolete as slavery and duelling but, for Coker, neither has truly ended. Slavery, for one, continues and has adapted in its form. It has changed into sex slaves in sex trafficking.

Coker also cites Aristotle and his way of looking at war: preconditions, precipitance and the trigger.

For preconditions: the rise of China is to destabilise the system and the US has no power to regulate the system. The reasons are as follow: firstly, it is difficult to China to evaluate its power when it is both rich and poor at the same time - a lot of Chinese people still live on less than $2 a day; secondly, it is questionable how China will translate its power and resources into influence when the US is seeking to maximise its power through networking; the third question is how China is to exercise its power responsibly; the fourth question is how one shares power with others when avoiding war means sharing power; the last question is how one conserves  power while avoiding an over-stretch. These questions are yet to be answered, and it is very optimistic to be able to answer them.

About the US. What is important is whether the US can manage its decline successfully and how can we help the US manage its decline. 'Can the US think strategically?' is another question. The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) shows the absence of strategic thinking. What it shows is strategic objectives - what the US will achieve - with no ways about how to achieve them.

On precipitance, nationalism is alive and well. The ideas that, first, the US primacy is finished and, second, China will rise to overtake the US by 2050 is too late demonstrate impatience in the Chinese military. At the same time, the US military is the main beneficiary of the expenditure, as in the war on terror. The US military will remain one of the most powerful constituents.

What, then, would be the trigger? It is much more likely to see the outer space and cyberspace used. An example is when Russia launched a cyberwar on Estonia: people went to a cashpoint only to find out they could not take out their money.

The final remark of the lecture is on contingency and its importance which must not be underestimated. There were many war-like activities that did not end in war and historians are still puzzled over whether that was because of contingency.

Reported by Piangtawan Phanprasit

Why Americans Must End

Why Americans Must End America’s Self-Generating Wars

The most urgent political challenge to the world today is how to prevent the so-called “pax Americana” from progressively degenerating, like the 19th-century so-called “pax Britannica” before it, into major global warfare. I say “so-called,” because each “pax,” in its final stages, became less and less peaceful, less and less orderly, more and more a naked imposition of belligerent competitive power based on inequality.