The China-US trade war continues, perpetuating apprehensions about the China-US conflict and possibly war, though whether it will be a hot or cold war remains uncertain. Over the years, the question of the Thucydides Trap, or whether or not war will break out between China and the US, is of widespread concern in the international community. Obviously, these concerns are not unfounded, but are firmly rooted in real-world issues.
In a nutshell, the three root causes of war are values, interests, and desire.
One can argue whether the Thucydides Trap applies to China-US relations. Nevertheless, there must be an explanation for all the wars that have occurred time and again in human history. Despite the cruelty that makes war so abhorrent to us, wars continue to occur quite frequently. We must transcend morality if we are to investigate and study the objective pattern of the occurrence of war.
Why do humans wage war? Based on a history of frequent wars, no two wars are waged for the same specific reasons. This perspective supports the view that there is probably no objective, regular pattern for war’s occurrence. At the same time, however, the universality of war makes it possible for us to philosophically explore its root cause. In a nutshell, the three root causes of war are values, interests, and desire.
First, war is waged for values. Every individual, organisation, country or civilisation has its own values system that distinguishes it from others. Values underpin people’s identities, both nationally and internationally. Extending from one’s values are self-perceived correctness and morality of behaviour.
Wars waged in the name of religion are the most typical of those waged for values. “God” is the incarnation of values, with different gods embodying different values. Religious wars have occurred frequently in history, and they show no sign of abating. Although large-scale religious wars have ceased, conflicts caused by religious extremism continue to occur frequently. In postmodern times, secular and developed Western nations create quasi-religious values, fighting for causes such as democracy, freedom, and human rights, which they fervently promote to other nations as avidly as religious missionaries spread their faith. There is no shortage of Western literature that sings the praises of war, because war is an effective means of fulfilling the mission of Western nations. Western scholars have theoretically distinguished between just and unjust wars, and the causes of a just war conform to Western values.
Of course, this phenomenon exists not only in the West, but in all nations. While the presence of values is objective, conflicts between different values systems are inevitable if values are moralised.
Second, war is waged for interests, an obvious point when viewed from the economic perspective. Because the world’s resources are limited, they are seized through various avenues, including war, which is deemed an effective method. Access to resources through violence began in prehistoric times, when tribal wars were waged for survival and growth.
Historically, tribal wars gave rise to larger organisations, culminating in nations. The theory of the origin of nations explains this process. In the age of imperialism, wars among empires were waged to pillage resources, mainly land and people. Modern sovereign nations were also established through war, and the plunder of resources for industrialisation was later typical of imperialism and colonialism. Today, conflicts among nations extend into finances and the Internet, where resources are seized and controlled in various ways. However, the conflicts among nations assume different forms, and some nations appear more civilised, while others are less refined.
Third, war is also waged for desires. Values and interests can themselves generate a level of desire that is sufficient to lead to conflict. Here, the desires are animal instincts. When studying the root causes of war, some scholars directly point to the role of human desire. From the simple observation that fights for leadership exist in the animal kingdom, scholars have concluded that war is humans’ natural instinct. Philosophically, the view that human nature is evil has empirical evidence from the battles of ancient Roman gladiators, the feuds between aristocrats of more recent times, and the various blood sports of today. They are all full of humans’ ferity and animal instincts.
Based on an economic rationale, economic historian Joseph Alois Schumpeter holds that nationalism is atavistic, a legacy of ancient human DNA, and that this hereditary trait will eventually diminish, giving hope for world peace. But this is contrary to our real situation. In modern times, although needs may be satisfied through means other than war, wars continue to occur and have in fact intensified. It can be inferred that humankind’s evil nature is universal and persistent. Desire is the most important factor in the decision-making process of politicians, overriding both values and interests. Driven by desire, decision-making becomes irrational, and even winning or losing the war becomes unimportant.
Values, interests, or desires can cause wars to be waged. The likelihood of the overlap of these three factors in the China-US relations confirms the severity of the situation and how it may be aggravated.
Binary thinking and the clash of civilisations
Both China and the US are civilised nations with different values, representing Eastern and Western civilisations. However, the two civilisations are not mutually exclusive, and they can find space to accommodate each other. Historically, Chinese civilisation has had a great influence on Western civilisations, while this influence flowed in the opposite direction in modern times. Despite this, both civilisations have remained distinctive. While mutual learning between civilisations is a thing of beauty, daggers are too often drawn by politicians, causing irreconcilable conflicts.
On Twitter, US President Trump often refers to others as either “enemy” or “friend”, “good people” or “bad people”. These Trumpian appellations are indeed reflective of Western civilisation’s view of the external world
Moreover, the simplistic binary thinking of the West has contributed to antagonism between civilisations. The US or the Western world has long positioned itself on the side of freedom, democracy, and human rights, while identifying China as the diametric opposite. In the thousands of years since ancient Greece, Westerners have only perceived China from a single paradigm – oriental despotism.
This simplistic dichotomy is manifested in international politics. On Twitter, US President Trump often refers to others as either “enemy” or “friend”, “good people” or “bad people”. These Trumpian appellations are indeed reflective of Western civilisation’s view of the external world, a view that is culturally and philosophically rooted. There has never been a shortage of advocates for the argument for the clash of civilisations in academia or politics, and the US has recently applied this argument to China-US relations.
From the logic of Western values, the “religious mission” of the US in modern times has always been to change China. In the early days of China’s economic reform, Americans thought that China would change and eventually evolve into a nation like the US. They were ecstatic when they thought China was developing in the way they expected, and were extremely disappointed when they felt it was not.
Economic reforms have led to the rapid emergence of China today. When China walks its own path, American disappointment reaches a crescendo. The US does not hesitate to identify China as “the opposition” or “the enemy”, especially when it believes that China’s development and institutional model pose a challenge to the US.
Second, the differences in interests bring about conflicts of interests, which manifest in all areas, including economics, security, and politics. Some conflicts of interest are specific, such as economic interests, while others, such as security, are usually expressed cognitively or psychologically.
After decades of exchange and integration, the economies of China and the US are highly interdependent. The concept of economic interests is one of relative, not absolute, return. Although it is impossible for both sides to earn equal profits, the US has often considered absolute return in its economic exchanges with China. The trade war with China, initiated by the Trump administration due to a trade deficit, stems from this view.
The huge surplus in China’s trade data does not encompass the enormous price China pays, including costs in terms of environmental and human capital. In the recent decades of economic cooperation, the US has also gained tremendously from China. By creating a trade conflict between the two nations now, the US has “externalised” its internal problems, which are rooted in the unequal distribution of resources.
The differences in political and security interests between China and the US are even more evident. As they are, after all, two different civilisations, they have different political systems and ideologies. However, differences do not necessarily lead to conflicts. Conflicts occur only when one side wants to change the systems and ideologies of the other. The same holds true for national security, where the need of both sides for national defence in itself does not necessarily lead to conflicts. Conflicts only rise alongside the aspiration to conquer.
Desires are unlikely to be restrained
Economic and trade relations are often seen as ballasts in China-US relations, where close, stable economic and trade relations can mitigate political and security concerns. However, when the effect of the ballasts diminishes or vanishes, concerns over political and security issues surface. As a result, the voices of US hardliners and anti-China factions, particularly regarding security and defence systems, have gained currency since the start of the China-US trade war. Many are worried that the conflict between the two nations will soon extend beyond economy and trade and into politics and security.
Today, China and the US are the two essential pillars of international relations, and the collapse of any one pillar will result in problems in the world order. China-US relations have frequently been described as “mutually beneficial benefit in cooperation and mutually damaging in confrontation.” The point in question is that the US, as the hegemon today, has a strong desire to maintain its dominant position. Fuelled by the fear that its position is being challenged or is about to be supplanted by China, the US will do its utmost in prevention and deterrence.
China’s rapid rise has compelled it to change its behaviour in the international arena, from its earlier position to “conceal its capacities and bide its time” to today’s stand of “achieving significance”. While it lagged behind in the past, it was possible for China to adopt a low profile as its small economy was unable, even if desired, to influence the world. Now, having become the world’s second largest economy and the largest trading nation, the earlier position is untenable.
More importantly, the international community (including the US) demands that China, which has emerged as a global power, assume greater international responsibility and provide global public assets. This naturally leads to China’s commitment to weightier action. However, the US has interpreted these accomplishments by China as a challenge to the US and competition for dominance. In response to attempts by the US to contain and suppress, a distressed China will certainly develop a desire to counteract US actions.
Values can be integrated and interests can be compromised, but desires are unlikely to be restrained. Western values do not necessarily conflict with the secular cultural values of China, although the integration of values takes a long time. As the interests of China and America have become inseparable, the approach adopted by the US since the start of the trade war has resulted in mutually detrimental outcomes.
If China is itself adequately rational, it can free the US from its quagmire of desires and restore rationality. This is ultimately beneficial to China and the US, as well as the international community.
In other words, the conflicts in values and interests between China and the US are not inevitable and can be avoided. However, irrationality sets in when desires prevail. Many fail to understand the reasons for the US initiating the trade war. Because American policymakers may not have seriously considered whether the US intends to suppress or conquer China, current American action towards China is largely emotional and irrational.
This is an overarching trend in China-US relations, one that nobody wishes to see. If it is not corrected, an unavoidable tragedy may result, and the tragedy will not be limited to the US and China, but will impact the whole world. For China, the contest with the US is not merely a test of willpower, but one of rational thinking. If China is itself adequately rational, it can free the US from its quagmire of desires and restore rationality. This is ultimately beneficial to China and the US, as well as the international community.