Both world wars have shown how crossing red lines may have unpredictable consequences.
Written by Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts
The Athenian general and military historian Thucydides famously wrote that the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta had become inevitable because the latter feared the former’s rising power. “Thucydides Trap” is a term coined by US political scientist Graham T. Allison (based on the Greek thinker’s insight) to describe the situation in which an emerging power threatens to displace the current regional hegemon, and thus war becomes very likely. Some experts doubt the accuracy or usefulness of such a concept as an explanatory tool that could be generalized, but this notion has traditionally been employed to describe the risk of a conflict between China and the United States – and today it seems to have become even more relevant, especially if one considers that the American Establishment sees the end of unipolarity as a kind of an existential challenge.
American-Chinese differences have been described as irreconcilable for a while – and yet a certain degree of strategic ambiguity on both sides (pertaining to foreign’s policy) has made such differences manageable for decades. Washington, however, broke this very ambiguity regarding Taiwan: commenting on how the US is overextending its power, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Stephen Wertheim argues that for many years Washington agreed with the One China Policy while maintaining some level of ambiguity about the issue of Taiwan. The logic, from a US perspective, was not provoking the Chinese into thinking they have no choice but to act there. However, by radically reviewing its One China Policy, as shown by Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island of Taiwan, the Atlantic superpower cornered Beijing, thereby increasing tensions – as exemplified by China’s recent military exercise blockading Formosa.
Proposals such as the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 and the Accelerating Arms Transfers to Taiwan Act (H.R. 8842) show that large sectors of the American political elite want to repeat the Ukrainian experience in Taiwan, as Washington is actively pursuing a dual containment policy targeting both Russia and China simultaneously. In October 2021, Graham T. Allison wrote, quite convincingly, that the United States could in fact lose a hypothetical war with Beijing over Taiwan because the military power balance in the region has changed and the era of US military supremacy there has come to an end. This is something Washington should consider.
Amid the current new cold war, Beijing is in fact facing containment from several directions, as exemplified by new groupings such as QUAD, AUKUS and also by the fact that NATO has recently labeled China as a “systemic challenge”, as argues Jagannath Panda, an Indo-Pacific issues expert who heads the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA).
Moreover, while China has been defining its bilateral relationship with the US as aiming at a kind of peaceful coexistence, the latter, on the other hand, has framed their relationship in terms of confrontational great power rivalry, according to Singapore’s East Asian Institute visiting senior research fellow Paul Haenle. Such diverging frameworks have in fact contributed to bringing about a stalemate, as China’s Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng warned in July 2021. Beijing sees the American growing military presence in South Asia (and particularly in Southeast Asia) as threatening and resents the fact that Washington does not acknowledge its own political and economical system as valid.
The US-China equation (“Thucydides” or not) is complicated enough in itself, but there is yet another risk: A Taiwan conflict resulting from Western provocations could affect the delicate balance of India’s own ambiguous relationship with China and spiral into sparking an Indian-Chinese war, according to Jagannath Panda. New Delhi has been advancing their country’s neutrality, thus making it a kind of a buffer between the West and Beijing, and, he argues, the Chinese reconciliatory tone towards India is partly a response to the latter’s courting by the West.
More recently, both Asian powers have removed their troops from their disputed border area, and in doing so, they have both taken a potential step towards the new Asian century. However, if China were to occupy Taiwan as a response to American provocations, this would dramatically damage New Delhi’s trust of its neighbor, as this trust is based on the need for economic cooperation but not to the exclusion of national security (from an Indian perspective) – hence the risk of a conflict spilling across the Himalayas.
This is of course just a scenario, but in any case bold moves (such as crossing red lines) and escalations of tensions may have unintended and unpredictable consequences, which in turn may spiral out of control – as both world wars have shown us. It’s therefore urgent that Washington put a halt to its dangerous dual containment policy and exercise restraint, while establishing good diplomacy, before a point of no return is reached.
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