The contest between the United States and China traces the outlines of the second Cold War. Both Xi Jinping’s assertive expansionism and Joe Biden’s determined policy of containment paint an oft-repeated historical fresco, that of a power on the rise challenging another in decline. The situation frequently led to conflict, and this was the point made by the political scientist Graham Allison with an expression that thrived, ‘Thucydides Trap,’ using a quote by the ancient historian which posited that war between emerging Athens and dominant Sparta had been inevitable. Such a trap now lurks in Taiwan, as gaining back the island is a prime and permanent goal of a Chinese leadership emboldened by the boom of a nationalism that flaunts its technical and economic achievements. The question of whether this new Cold War is really more a Cool War or Hot Peace, as Washington’s near-extinct doves think, or a catastrophic sure path to confrontation, as the US establishment’s predominant hawks fear, is perhaps the most tragic dilemma of our times.
In the opinion of Niall Ferguson, who for the Times Literary Supplement has reviewed every analysis of the matter that US think tanks have produced (with special emphasis on those by Rush Doshi, current China Director on the National Security Council), if the first World War had its Berlin crisis, Cuba crisis, and Middle East Crisis, this second Cold War could culminate in a single Taiwan crisis, because the island “has the symbolic significance of the German capital, the geographic sensitivity of the Caribbean island, and the economic centrality of the Persian Gulf.” The major convulsions of recent times (Brexit, Trump, and the pandemic) have debilitated the West, driving the Chinese to claim a geopolitical centrality that pushes beyond East Asia to encroach upon the rest of the world, with soft power and economic muscle by way of the Belt and Road Initiative, with technological leadership through a colossal investment in pillars of the fourth industrial revolution such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and with a considerable increase in military spending that is visible in programs like the building of aircraft carriers.
Just in 2021, so far, China has celebrated three feats in a row: the eradication of extreme rural poverty, “a miracle,” says Xi, “that will go down in history”; the wiping out of malaria, dropping from 30 million cases per year to zero, as certified by the WHO; and victory over Covid-19, a pandemic that broke out there but which has been doggedly battled with, non-stop, from the start: unsurprisingly, in the events held to observe the centenary of the Communist Party, Chinese leaders have exhibited what political science calls ‘performance legitimacy,’ claiming the country’s formidable economic growth as proof of the superiority of its system.
From outside will come censure of its treatment of Hong Kong’s democrats or Xinjiang’s Muslims, and of its demographic deterioration or the social malaise produced by growing inequality; and from within will ooze the tensions caused by the persisting disparity between countryside and city, the inevitable clashes among political or economic elites, and the disenchantment of part of the nation’s youth, which rejects the pressures to work hard for the benefit of the State, and which before taking on the burden of children and mortgages prefers to protest through tangping, ‘lying flat,’ an alternative movement in defense of a frugal and leisurely life. But the magnitude of China’s accomplishments has spurred its president to vow that “China will never be humiliated again,” defending its territorial integrity and promising reunification with Taiwan. For the good of China and that of everyone else, let us cross our fingers that the island does not become a Thucydides Trap.