The coronavirus outbreak has intensified the rivalry and magnified the structural differences between the US and China, Harvard professor Graham Allison says.
China’s autocratic system has performed better in some aspects than America’s democracy so far in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, but it is too early to write off the United States despite its many early missteps, analysts at a China Institute event said.
“In general, democracies do not do very well in the first innings,” said Graham Allison, a government professor at Harvard University and author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
“I subscribe to the proposition that the world’s most successful investor Warren Buffett frequently repeats,” he added. “He says nobody ever made money in the long run selling the US short.”
Allison’s book has gained widespread attention with its argument that historically when a rising power like China tries to displace an established power like the US, it almost always results in war.
The coronavirus crisis has intensified that uneasy rivalry, Allison said, and magnified the structural differences. Even as China has bolstered its government talent and capabilities in recent decades as it has become more wealthy, the US has actively reduced the scope and size of federal agencies.
The cost of that US policy has become all too evident in recent weeks with crisis management expertise missing and ventilators and other emergency equipment in short supply.
A key question moving forward, foreign policy experts said, is whether Washington learns from the current crisis, including the need to bolster preparedness and the importance of cooperating globally. Like it or not, disease, global warming, nuclear proliferation and trade disputes call for global not “America first” solutions, analysts said.
“The spread of Covid-19 shows that we live in a small village,” said Kishore Mahbubani, a fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. “The United States can improve the well-being of its people by cooperating with the rest of the world, rather than by engaging in another zero sum geopolitical contest.”
Asked during a press conference Tuesday about whether the US was easing its rhetoric toward China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that collaboration is a two-way street.
“The idea of cooperation is more than just saying, ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll get along, we’re happy to get along with you,’” Pompeo said. “It needs to be transparent and timely and open. We have an expectation and we’re communicating that expectation to every country.”
Allison, a former US assistant secretary of defence, said as the US-China rivalry heats up, and the two governments work to decouple supply chains and reduce their technology dependence, the winner may be the country that does best resolving its own problems.
“Each of you have a big problem that you’re probably going to fail to solve. Most of that problem lies inside your own borders, not abroad, not with the other party,” he said.
“One has a party-led autocratic system, which is a 20th century operating system, but on which you’re trying to paste 21st century apps. And that’s not going to work,” Allison said. “And the other has a democracy that is demonstrably dysfunctional.”
As the two giants try to reduce their mutual dependence and face off in the South China Sea, those potentially most hurt are middle powers such as Australia and Singapore caught between the two, analysts said.
“This is not black and white,” said Mahbubani, a former president of the United Nations Security Council. “This is a very complex game with many players, and many different nuances are coming. And we’ve got to absorb that complexity to understand the world.”
The narrowing gap between Washington’s and Beijing’s respective global power and military might does not necessarily mean any war between the two under a Thucydides dynamic would be started by one of them directly, Allison said, but rather where a third player that lights the spark.
“So in the current situation, Taiwan is a ticking time bomb,” Allison said.
If Taiwan were to declare its independence, Beijing would likely reintegrate it by force, which could prompt Washington to defend the self-governing island, he said.
“And from there, it’s not hard to trace an escalation that could end up in nuclear war and bombs exploding,” Allison added. “We should not think about someone wanting a nuclear war, but about someone getting dragged there.”