The “Thucydides Trap” and US/China Trade War

The most important point is that the US China Trade War is expanding and has now become a universal trade war. – Bill Perry, US/China Trade War  

I’ve been reading Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War (431 B.C.E.) and researching the U.S./China debate topic. Thucydides mentions trade issues between Greek city-states, along with escalating passions following political and military disputes.

Graham Allison’s article “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?”  (The Atlantic, September 24, 2015) features an ominous subtitle: “In 12 of 16 past cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power, the result has been bloodshed.” Allison argues:

The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power—as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago. Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations, a team of mine at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has concluded after analyzing the historical record. In 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war. When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged.

In “Thucydides’s trap has been sprung in the Pacific” (Financial Times, August 21, 2012), Graham Allison made a similar claim:

The defining question about global order in the decades ahead will be: can China and the US escape Thucydides’s trap? The historian’s metaphor reminds us of the dangers two parties face when a rising power rivals a ruling power – as Athens did in 5th century BC and Germany did at the end of the 19th century. Most such challenges have ended in war. Peaceful cases required huge adjustments in the attitudes and actions of the governments and the societies of both countries involved.

Classical Athens was the centre of civilisation. Philosophy, history, drama, architecture, democracy – all beyond anything previously imagined. This dramatic rise shocked Sparta, the established land power on the Peloponnese. Fear compelled its leaders to respond. Threat and counter-threat produced competition, then confrontation and finally conflict. At the end of 30 years of war, both states had been destroyed.

In “Superpower and Upstart: Sometimes It Ends Well,” (New York Times, January 22, 2011), David Sanger compares the U.K. to U.S. global power transition (peaceful) to the predicted U.S./ China power transition in the Pacific:

Just ask the British, who a century ago were struggling to come to terms with the erosion of their status as the world’s No. 1 empire. It didn’t help that they were being upstaged by a former colony that had turned into an upstart sea-power… 

Or ask Thucydides… “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”…

Both Mr. Hu and President Obama seemed desperate to avoid what Graham Allison of Harvard University has labeled “the Thucydides Trap” – that deadly combination of calculation and emotion that, over the years, can turn healthy rivalry into antagonism or worse. 

After discussing events surrounding Chinese President Hu Jintao’s meetings during a 2011 visit to the U.S., Sanger concludes:

Meanwhile, Thucydides might be appalled at the nationalistic talk that resounds in both countries. In Chinese newspapers these days, it’s hard to avoid accounts of “American decline.” Meanwhile, some new members of Congress talk lightly of cutting off Chinese access to the American market — as if that could happen in today’s global economy.

In both languages, that’s fear talking.

Mostly open markets, trade, and international investment explains why America’s rise to global economic power in the 19th Century helped rather than endangered UK and European companies, investors, or consumers. British and other European firms and investors earned profits from supplying capital for expanding U.S. railroads, manufacturing, nature resource extraction, and agriculture (for example, see this history of Balfour-Guthrie:  “A British Firm on the American West Coast, 1869-1914* The Business History Review, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Winter, 1963), pp. 392-415)

Through the primaries and Presidential campaign, anti-China claims and threats seem everywhere. Yet the reality, as previous posts have noted, shows U.S. manufacturing is robust, with output expanding 40% over the last 20 years, the period of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and China joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). (See also: Globalization isn’t killing factory jobs. Trade is actually why manufacturing is up 40%)

Automation is the major reason the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs dropped over this period. And far from challenging the U.S., manufacturers and workers in China have been integrated into complex and cost-effective supply-chain networks, benefiting U.S., other Asian, and European manufacturers as well as consumers.

Still, not everyone benefits from rising global trade and investment. Some labor unions and domestic firms and industries have declined, and blame China. With the slow recovery since the 2008-2009 “great recession” some manufacturers and trade associations have pushed their governments for domestic subsidies and restrictions on imports.

For an overview of recent trade U.S./China trade disputes see Bill Perry’s “UNIVERSAL TRADE WAR, TPP IN LAME DUCK, SPOTTING POTENTIAL AD CASES, CUSTOMS, FALSE CLAIMS ACT, VITAMIN C ANTITRUST, IP AND 337” (US/China Trade War, October 7, 2016), which spells out the downward spiral:

The most important point is that the US China Trade War is expanding and has now become a universal trade war. Although the US continues to bring numerous antidumping (AD) and countervailing duty (CVD) cases against China, the Chinese government is now bringing and will bring numerous AD and CVD cases against the US.

In the recent Chinese antidumping case against Distiller Grains from the US, the Chinese government has levied a 33% rate against $1.6 billion in US exports to China. There are rumors that the Chinese government may soon bring AD and CVD cases targeting $15 billion in US exports of soybeans to China.

Meanwhile numerous countries have adopted their own AD and CVD laws modeled on the US and EU and are bringing cases not only against China, but also against the US.

The only recent trade developments that would break the retaliation cycle are the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the TTIP deal with Europe and both trade agreements are in serious trouble.

Debaters should be familiar with arguments for increasing as well as reducing trade restrictions with China. Economist Don Boudreaux explains the case for more open trade in this April 20 2015 Mercatus Center post “The Benefits of Free Trade: Addressing Key Myths.”

Economist Peter Navarro (an advisor to Donald Trump), advocates increased trade barriers with China. See “Trump Economic Advisers Denounce Trade Deals in Theory, Practice,” (Bloomberg, August 3, 2016).

Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame, advises people to read, think, reflect, and debate, before they vote. Rowe writes:

“Spend a few hours every week studying American history, human nature, and economic theory. Start with “Economics in One Lesson.” Then try Keynes. Then Hayek. Then Marx. Then Hegel. Develop a worldview that you can articulate as well as defend. Test your theory with people who disagree with you. Debate. Argue. Adjust your philosophy as necessary. Then, when the next election comes around, cast a vote for the candidate whose worldview seems most in line with your own.”

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-12-07-27-pmHenry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, long popular in high school debate classes, is online here from the Foundation for Economic Education.

(And classroom sets of a small new paperback (50 for $70) are here.)

David Beers explains the value of Economics in One Lesson for debaters and extempers in this article, noting:

Henry Hazlitt, probably this century’s greatest journalistic expositor of the economic way of thinking wrote: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

He went on to say that nine-tenths of the economic fallacies that work harm in the world today are the result of ignoring this lesson. While Hazlitt’s Lesson is not exactly a separate economic principle, it is a form of mental discipline that must be exercised when constructing or analyzing policy…. protective tariffs and quotas harm American consumers and workers… In each case the counter-intuitive result is found by consistent application of Hazlitt’s Lesson: look not just to the immediate effects on one group, but the long run effects on all groups.

So, lots for debaters to ponder.  — Greg Rehmke, Debate Central

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