Source:Global Times Published
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, China and the US have been engaged in a wide spectrum of competition that has enhanced their rivalry. We have seen debates and arguments about China’s one-party system versus the US democratic system, the China-US blame game, and the ideology-centered media war. How will the pandemic reshape China-US relations? Is cooperation still possible to address the unexpected global challenge posed by the virus? Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen talked to Graham Allison (Allison), professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, on these issues.
Graham Allison Photo: Courtesy of Allison
GT: Has the black swan of the coronavirus brought China-US competition to its highest level? How will the pandemic reshape China-US relations?
Allison: We have to recognize that this coronavirus threat is layered on top of deep, inescapable structural realities. China is a meteoric rising power that really is threatening to displace the US from positions we have come to believe that are our natural positions at the top of every pecking order. In short, this is a classic Thucydidean rivalry – with all that implies (including the genuine risk of a catastrophic war neither nation wants.)
To complicate the picture further, each country’s successes and failures in its own “war” against this enemy will inescapably become a significant feature in this rivalry. If China succeeds in not just flattening, but bending the curve of new infections toward zero – as they seem to have done – while the US flounders, no amount of rhetoric will be able to disguise this bottom line. The consequences for the overall competition, for judgments about the relative merits of democracy versus autocracy, and for America’s standing in the world will be profound.
GT: In your National Interest article, you said the US and China have to be ruthless rivals and intense partners at the same time to defeat the virus. What does that require both countries to do?
Allison: As best as I can understand, the current coronavirus is really an existential threat that neither the US nor China can successfully defeat on its own. Even if one of them drives new infections within its borders to zero, I find it almost impossible to imagine that the other can hermetically seal its borders. So if this is genuinely an existential crisis for each, and if neither can defeat it without the cooperation of the other, then if two nations are rational, their only viable option is to find ways to organize the necessary cooperation. My piece suggests a number of specific areas where working together in the medical and scientific arena can reduce the time it takes to develop vaccine, better diagnostics, and better therapeutics.
GT: Some US politicians sharply blamed China for the current virus crisis in the US, while rational scholarly voices in the US called for China-US cooperation in order to succeed in the war. How does this division hinder China-US cooperation?
Allison: Despite China’s utmost efforts, it’s undeniable that there were many problems in Wuhan’s early handling of the outbreak and to its credit, China has learned a great lesson from this. But the effort by many in Washington to make this the primary storyline is escapist – an attempt to duck responsibilities for their own failures. The blame game both have been playing is a childish distraction – and let’s hope that after the conversation between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping on March 27, both sides will now move on.
At this point, the evidence from all sources suggests that China’s efforts have been remarkably successful. Today, financial markets are betting that China has essentially succeeded in the first phase in this long war. If after its sharp decline in the first quarter, it now returns to robust economic growth, on the one hand, and the US teeters on the brink between an extended recession and a genuine depression, on the other, the gap between the GDP of the US and China will widen (by PPP China’s economy is larger). If a Party-led authoritarian government demonstrates competence in ensuring its citizens’ most basic human right – the right to life – while a democratic, decentralized government flounders, complaints about the measures China has used to do so will sound to many like sour grapes.
GT: So far we see the absence of the US leadership – a role the world’s sole superpower is supposed to play. Some scholars even believe this may declare the death of American competence. What is your take?
Allison: The urgent challenge America faces in attempting to defeat coronavirus is not China. It is our own failures to mobilize a response proportionate to the threat. After countries like Singapore and South Korea began implementing emergency measures, the US government remained in denial for weeks. In a world where South Korea began testing 10,000 citizens a day within weeks of patient zero – and can now test 20,000 a day – who is still floundering with one excuse after another? Nonetheless, if experts are right about the likelihood of second and third waves of this pandemic, this “war against coronavirus” will continue for some time to come. Democracies are historically slow to awake to challenges, and slow to respond. But once their mind is focused, watch out. I agree with the world’s most successful investor, Warren Buffet, who always reminds investors that no one ever made money in the long run by selling America short.
GT: How will this global pandemic affect the views you expressed in your book Destined for War: Can the US and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?
Allison: My purpose in writing the book was to alert us to the risk but motivate wise leaders in both nations to stretch beyond history as usual. While the US and China cannot escape the deeply rooted structural realities that will make them intense rivals, like four of the other 16 cases of Thucydidean rivalry in the past 500 years, they could find a way to manage that rivalry without war.
Incredible as it seems, and as insane as it would be if it happened, the possibility of an actual shooting war between the US and China is much greater than most people appreciate. In a context of Thucydidean rivalry, miscalculations could escalate all too easily to catastrophe. But to be clear, I do not think war is inevitable.
My principal agenda for the past three years since I sent my book to the publisher has been to find a way to “escape Thucydides’ Trap.” Given the consequences of a war between the US and China, which could escalate to full-scale nuclear war that would largely destroy both societies, each must be supremely motivated to prevent this from happening. The question is whether adults in both governments can find a way to peacefully coexist.
To stretch for a silver lining in the current coronavirus crisis, if the US and China can internalize the strategic insight that external threats each face and cannot defeat by itself command a degree of partnership, could this become a “learning moment” about how they can manage the intense rivalry that will be the defining feature of their relationship for as far as any eye can see? In the distant past, I was proud to serve in the Reagan administration. I have memories of the process that led this fierce anti-Communist to a startling realization. As he put that insight in his oft-stated bumper sticker: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must therefore never be fought.” Perhaps an analogous specter today could motivate statesmen to tale a page from Chinese wisdom and create a 21st century model of what the Song Dynasty (960-1279) did with the Liao (916-1125) in the Chanyuan Treaty of 1005 that created a “rivalry partnership.”