Will Sparta overtake Athens?

JOSE V. ROMERO JR., PHD.

JOSE V. ROMERO JR., PHD.

ACCORDING to the theory of the Thucydides Trap, a rising Sparta and declining Athens led to war. Applying this to the superpower rivalry between China and the US, the doomsayers say that a fast-rising China which is touted to overtake the US, at least economically, by 2028, will inevitably lead to a pre-emptive strike by either the US or China.

Unlike other superpower in the area, China has outlined long-term strategies designed to displace the US as the dominant geo-economics and geopolitical superpower.

Moreover, China is busy extending its soft power across the globe pouring time, money, infrastructure and trade into every continent, taking advantage of increasing signs of the US going back to an era of splendid isolation –the scuttling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is mute testimony of this tendency.

Thus far, China has tightened ties with Europe and Japan, and welcomed US companies to create joint ventures.
Not only is China spending nearly 9 percent of GDP on infrastructure — three times that of America—it is building the largest global infrastructure project in history, the Belt and Road Initiative, touted to be bigger than the Marshall Plan that rehabilitated postwar Europe.

Growing three times as fast as the US economy, China’s GDP is projected to be larger than America’s by 2028, controlling one-sixth of the global economy.

Chinese aggressiveness in WPS

Today amidst the tension in the West Philippine Sea, it is good for this country to re-examine its relationship with the superpowers.

In our relations with China, it is therefore useful to find out what her geopolitical and geo-economic priorities are.
China keeps on reiterating its peaceful development narrative, because it serves best Chinese interests and those of its neighbors and client states.

The “100 Years of Humiliation” narrative is at the core of Chinese nationalism, Any aggressive demands against China, especially those that can negatively impact its core interests, will be strongly resisted. To the extent that the US can give China its long sought after respect, equal recognition, and security— to that extent will Pax Asiatica be assured. This will be the litmus test of American diplomatic statecraft.

Security considerations

Why is China paranoid? The US biennial naval exercise with Australia called the “Talisman Saber,” primarily involving the naval blockade of the Malacca Strait and other vital choke points in the area (i.e., Lombok, Sunda, Makassar, etc.), is based on the doctrine that whoever controls these vital choke points control not only the China Sea but also the Indian Ocean and beyond. This has added to Chinese paranoia and explains her aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea.

Through the Malacca Strait flows China’s oil and foreign trade, about 70 percent of it, which if blocked can force the entire Chinese economy to grind to a halt. This explains China’s determination to prevent any foreign power from conducting such a naval blockade. A naval exercise involving the US, Japan, and New Zealand is anathema to the Chinese.

It also explains the building of those artificial islands in the WPS which the Chinese considers a counterweight to US arms superiority in the area. With these artificial islands China wants to create a second Great Wall which she is determined to defend at all costs, even if it means engaging in a nuclear exchange with the US and its allies.
In short, a strategic stalemate with the US in the area is the key to China’s military strategy in the WPS.

The importance of Scarborough Shoal in Chinese defense strategy is its proximity to the Manila Trench. The trench is the only portion of the South China Sea that is deep enough where US nuclear attacks submarines can approach undetected and launch a first strike against China’s eastern coast where its population and industry are concentrated.

Because US forces using EDCA bases can supply US submarines, destroyers, and aircraft carrier strike groups with nuclear capability, the retaliation from China can be expected to be nuclear in nature.

Accordingly, the Philippines will again be in the same precarious position during World War 2 when the Japanese hit US bases in the country almost simultaneously with Pearl Harbor.

WPS/SCS belongs to all users

A rules-based regime dividing seas in parts of the world can be established not by a unilaterally sought arbitration as was the case with the UNCLOS initiative but by bilateral negotiations among claimants, as proposed by the Chinese.

Actually, UNCLOS encourages claimant littoral states to negotiate (Article 123). The UNCLOS proceedings which China did not participate in and could therefore not be claimed to be truly an arbitration, made cooperation, as obligated by UNCLOS very difficult. It was deemed in defiance of the very Preamble, creating the UNCLOS, which states that above all else, the UNCLOS is “prompted by the desire to settle (disputes), in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation.”

Footnote: A debt trap?

In the past official development assistance and development financing from multilateral institutions were the primary source of borrowing by emerging economies. Overborrowing by developing countries in the 1980s when liberal lending by financial institutions and petro dollars led to the debt trap.

The debt crisis of the early 1980s was a learning experience and led to a better a structuring of external debt. On the part of borrowing countries this has prevented falling into the debt trap.

Today, while critics of Chinese borrowing point to the perils of availing of higher-interest yuan loans compared to the zero percent rate on yen loans, they do not consider the comparative foreign exchange risk of the two currencies. Verily the yuan backed up by hefty international reserves carries a smaller risk than the volatile yen.

Moreover, no dollar- or Euro-denominated lending could match the attractiveness of borrowing in yuan and yen.

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