Nearly a decade ago, historian Niall Ferguson coined the term “Chimerica” to describe what he saw as the obvious and symbiotic relationship emerging between China and America.
Most people would laugh today at the idea of the two Pacific heavyweights as economic and political partners. The only coordinated movements are to draw further apart. This decoupling didn’t start with Donald Trump, it’s actually a response to a real strategic threat felt by the US.
And it’s also why our minds are being changed about China. We are constantly being fed stories about its intellectual property theft, nasty treatment of its Uighur minority, a despotic clamp-down on Hong Kong protesters and a weak containment of a new coronavirus. These headlines ran for months, despite plenty of other things happening in the world.
Understanding what’s going on depends on knowing that the first rule of geopolitics is that everything which matters doesn’t change.
Chimerica as a concept started sputtering after the 2008 global financial crisis, the effects of which are still working through the global system. At the time, everyone who was anywhere important (including this writer) watched the numbers coming out of China and expected it to default on the single most important promise it had: the social contract with its people.
The Chinese Communist Party is in power today because it promises that its citizens will become wealthier over time. After 2008, that contract looked shaky, yet the CCP managed to hold up its end of the bargain through debt, Potemkin state-owned enterprises and fudged numbers.
But that victory is kind of the problem.
Contra Ferguson, US political scientist Graham Allison has been less sanguine and his concerns about what may happen if China grows stronger are playing out in real-time.
Allison has an interesting academic life. He spends a few years in government watching and talking to all the right people before stepping out to a think tank to write a book about what he saw. He’s done this over and over for pretty much his entire career.
One thing he noticed was that over history, in 12 of the 16 cases in which a rising power confronted a status-quo power, the resulting drama is generally known by a little concept called “world war.”
He called this the Thucydides Trap. More than 2400 years ago, the Athenian historian offered a powerful insight about the Peloponnesian War: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” The US and China are trying desperately to avoid this trap but he thinks there’s still time to solve this equation – although the odds aren’t rosy.
China’s muscles continue to grow and while the US appears weak politically, it absolutely is not –Washington is perfectly aware of the risk it faces from its Pacific rival.
In fact, the Pacific Ocean is at the core of this new trap because it is a key component of US grand strategy. It’s worth outlining this strategy to understand why our minds are changing about China.
Technically, the US is on a continent, but geopolitically it’s more accurate to consider the US as an island. Americans pat themselves on the back about their unique “go-West” attitude, but it is North America’s isolated geography which makes the country great, not just its people.
Compare America’s geography with Europe’s. While the latter is splintered by the Alps, Pyrenees and the Carpathians, the US has only the Rockies and the Appalachians (really, a set of large hills). And while many European rivers are navigable and flow to the sea, none compare to the giant Mississippi network connecting the entire US breadbasket to the Gulf of Mexico and to world markets.
In other words, America is rich and powerful because the inertia of its geography is towards integration, not disintegration like Europe’s.
But to hold onto that power, the US must first achieve political coherency from sea to shining sea (achieved by its Civil War). Second, it must neutralise any competitor on the North American continent (solved with the Mexican-American War in 1848 and agreements with the British Crown concerning Canada).
Third, and most importantly, the US must ensure no power from Europe or Asia can grow strong enough to threaten its coastlines. This means the US must become primarily a sea power to dominate both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (and the other oceans, if possible).
That strategic imperative was achieved when lend-lease was enacted in WWII. The US lent ships to Britain – but Britain leased almost all its bases in the Western Hemisphere to the US, ending centuries of its domination of the Atlantic and the last perpetual threat to the US. The US also fought against Japan in the Pacific after Tokyo seized the Western Pacific and began threatening the central Pacific.
The same strategy is driving events today. The Pentagon is watching China build a navy to deny foreign access to the Western Pacific. US warships regularly sail through that region but the Pentagon is no longer certain it can guarantee free access to those waters.
This is what all the fuss is about. It’s not simply that China’s fleet makes it tough for the Americans to guarantee shipping and trade in the Western Pacific. Rather, the problem is how long might it be until the Americans can’t steam through the central Pacific? Or near Alaska? And, God forbid, what if the Chinese block shipping from California?
This is unacceptable for the world’s only superpower. Hence why China is no longer painted only like a benign, plastic toy-creating, protein-buying friend.
That was a fine narrative when China played the low-cost manufacturer role the US and the world wanted. Now the many arms of Washington’s system (think tanks, academia, NGOs, media, etc) are ramping up their framing of China as a bunch of IP-stealing, bat-eating, human rights violating, dishonest traders who are dangerously aggressive in the South and East China Seas and must be stopped.
Both Allison and Ferguson say there is still no good reason for China and the US to go to war. Yet the strategic positioning is clear: the US is shaping the battlefield before the inevitable Thucydides Trap is sprung.
Chimerica was a great tale at the turn of the millennium, and maybe both countries believed it, but geopolitics is not so easily defeated – no matter how cute the neologism. So, as our minds change about China, just remember it really isn't about us in New Zealand. Far bigger wheels are moving.