This week Radio 4 has a short series of reports called The New World about current trends, and today’s looked, inter alia, at US-China relations. It introduced me to the concept of the Thucydides trap, where an established power (US, Sparta) feels threatened by an emergent power (China, Athens) in its sphere of influence. I liked the idea of a classical allusion still being pertinent and global – although there is always the danger of a compendious comparison turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, what did I learn?
Britain’s dominant global role was gradually taken over by the US at the start of the 20th century; for a while there was a shared polarity with the USSR until the end of the Cold War, but current US hegemony is being squeezed by an increasingly assertive China. Interesting question: did Great Britain realise what was going to happen to its global role a century ago? Does the US? Certainly Trump and the US political establishment give the impression that their military dominance – including in the South China Sea, where China is currently building artificial islands as surreptitiously as such an undertaking permits – must continue, but are we getting to the point where the US can only have their way by resorting to force? (Difficult to distinguish here between posturing and real intent.)
There’s longstanding antagonism between China and Japan, but China and Russia are co-operating more. Russia is a wild card: declining economically and demographically but growing militarily, thanks to Putin – including in cyberspace.
The last words in the programme were given to a European commentator stressing the need for co-operation rather than competition in world affairs, but I wondered if their/our well-meaning words and attitudes may be swatted aside by the likes of Trump, Putin, Xi and Kim Jong-un.
Trump has certainly challenged the polite world’s view of how things are run.