There is no Thucydides trap

That is the title of a new and interesting short essay by Arthur Waldron, here is one interesting bit of many:

Since the attack on Scarborough Shoal, now six years ago, my own opinion is that China expected to have occupied a lot more. Her slightly delusional view of her claims, first made explicit in ASEAN’s winter meeting of 2010 in Hanoi, was that “small” countries would all bow respectfully to China’s new pre-eminence. This has failed to occur. All of China’s neighbors are now building up strong military capabilities. Japanese and South Korean nuclear weapons are even a possibility. Over-relying on their traditional concept of awesomeness (威 wēi), the Chinese expected a cake walk. They have got instead an arms race with neighbors including Japan and other American allies and India too. With so much firepower now in place the danger of accident, pilot error, faulty command and control, etc. must be considered. But I’d wager that the Chinese would smother an unintended conflict. They are, after all, not idiots.


China’s tremendous economic vulnerabilities have no mention in Allison’s book. But they are critical to any reading of China’s future. China imports huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. The capital intensity of production is very high: in China one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55. China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future. Allison may know this on some level but you have to spend a lot of time in China and talk to a lot of specialists (often in Chinese) before the enormity becomes crushingly real.



"in China one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55."

What a suspect(produces what?) and in any case meaningless statistic. China is a better place to live for the majority than India, it's not even close.

I would guess that China produces a lot of steel and similar commodities, which would certainly affect this statistic without really giving any insights into whether this is a good or bad thing.

On solving the "ecological" issues, we know this can be done a lot easier once a country is developed, the west is a good example of this. When the UK was at a similar GDP level it was having horrendous pea soup fogs.

Additionally, far too much is made of eco-doomsters of water shortage issues. Israel is a good example of a water poor country that is able to be a major agricultural producer. Water is pretty easy to recycle and also can easily be made from sea water. Probably the best solution is trading though, China could import most of its food from naturally high water areas and export manufactured goods in return.

I'm not sure if you have ever been to China, but those pesky "ecological issues" dwarf anything ever seen in developed countries. Also as far as water goes China is somewhat more populated than Israel so perhaps that issue might require a bit more effort to rectify. Additionally I think its not so easy to make fresh water from seawater. Those desalination plants require a lot of energy.

Yes I have been to China many times. Of course there are many challenges with the environment, but I stand by my statement, I would argue that the pollution in pre-1960's London was much worse than what is seen in China today. China needs to phase out coal burning for power and home heating, which it already has a plan to do so. It is usually the case that rich countries have much better environments than poor ones, so the answer to ecological problems is not to prevent development but to encourage it.

By the way, population density of China is 141 people per sq Km vs Israel's 376, so even if we assume more than half of China is uninhabited, still gives the advantage to China.

On cost of desalination, this article quotes 58 cents per cubic metre from seawater,

This article quotes the use of water in the UK as 153 litres per person per day (seems high to me); which is 0.153 litres per day. So by my math that is 0.153*.58*365 = $32 per year per person. For a rich country that is negligible. Of course I have ignored the distribution costs (but presumably that is the same for all countries). And I have assumed no recycling in this calculation, likely most of this water could be easily recycled very cheaply as the cost of treating low saline water is very low compared to desalination.

Sorry the calculation should be 0.153 cubic meters per day per person.

"By the way, population density of China is 141 people per sq Km vs Israel’s 376, so even if we assume more than half of China is uninhabited, still gives the advantage to China. " I believe a more meaningful comparison would be of Chinese density by province compared with Israel. Israel is roughly as dense as Heibei (381) but far shy of Macau (17,645) and far more than Tibet (2.5)

Thats a good article on desalination from Technology Review.

Thanks for an enlightening comment.

Sailer Fan,

You're confusing a rate with a total. If you produce ten units of power and produce $0.77 per unit you will have $7.70. If your neighbor produces 100 unites of power and gets $0.33 per unit he gets $33. Your neighbor will enjoy 3 times plus what you enjoy. But if you scaled up to make 100 units of power you'd have $77 putting you ahead of your $33 neighbor.

The two big differences with China as a rising power (or as they like to think of it, a returning power) versus those before it include

1) Nuclear weapons temper how quickly war can get out of hand.
2) China became "China" by integrating in the American lead global liberal economic order, not by challenging it. I.E. China isn't a revisionist power.

I've read some reports that suggest that 75 percent of Chinese trade pass through the South China Sea. In the era of unipolarity with the hegemonic power assuming the responsibility to wage war on most non-similar regimes, militarizing such a vulnerability makes sense.

If the United States can find a way stop assuming that all people wanted to politically live how they do, a lot of the tension b/w the two powers would dissipate.

Australians aware that China's thirst for energy is not what it was. They've gone from generating 85% of their electricity from coal in 2011 to 77% in 2016. Coal exports to China are still huge, but the days when coal was king are over. Coal can't even scrape up a Dukedom these days. Hence the current Australian government's desperate attempts to talk up coal power in the hopes that someone, anyone, will invest in new coal generation. It's kind of cheeky since Australia is never going to build another coal power station.

China's solar PV capacity is now around 85 gigawatts and its has a substantial amount of solar thermal capacity as well, mostly hot water systems. Wind power is at over 170 gigawatts. They have about 1 million electric cars, well over 100,000 electric buses, and countless electric scooters.

They are well aware of their vulnerability to embargos and are clearly working hard to reduce it. While at the same time improving air climate and reducing climate destabilization.

Read "Japan 1941" by Eri Hotta. The Japanese also had issues with oil and gas, an inferior military to the US, and a deep understanding that stupid moves would cost them in a war they could not win.
Yet somehow they talked themselves into starting war with the US. They increasingly believed that since the US backed down in so many small areas, that it was vulnerable to being pressed hard.
I'm oversimplifying the book, but any careful read of it would mean that absent credible deterrence on the part of the West and given a limited and insular Chineseleadership, plus perception of Western weakness, nightmare scenarios are very possible.

It is a false and highly misleading equivalence to compare China to Japan.

Imperial Japan started its last four wars with surprise attacks against larger opponents in China, Russia, China again, and the United States. The Japanese needed strategic surprise to win short, high-intensity wars in which a surrender could be negotiated after big victories (and they achieved it in each case, by the way), when the war began to bog down and things turned against them. Japan's woes in World War II came in large part from China and America's refusal to negotiate.

Communist China started its last three wars against the United States, India, and Vietnam with clearly stated and limited objectives with strategic patience until a red line was crossed, none of which were a surprise. China advanced strongly but stopped when it saw the objectives achieved and then self-declared victory. The Chinese made no attempt to expand the war by bombing Tokyo, New Delhi, or Hanoi.

There is no nightmare scenario unless we make it one by expanding the scope of the conflict. But I do agree with you that how much we want to confront the Chinese over their threats and try to browbeat them into backing down or otherwise not treating them as credible is a salient question.

It's more instructive to look at communist China's interventions, rather than Japan. The Chinese leadership was much more of its limitations during the Korean War for example and acted within them than the Japanese who basically gambled during WW2. China had no nukes when it attacked the US forces in Korea, which showed their subtle understanding of the limits of US power to use them:

"The night of Nov. 25, an eerie bugle call sliced through the frigid night air along the Ch’ongch’on River. Lacking radios and other communication equipment, the CCF used bugle calls to relay orders in battle. It also proved to be an excellent intimidation tactic, Kenny pointed out, for Soldiers knew the sound was a harbinger of death.

In fact, agreed Donnelly, the Chinese were aware of their own limitations – poor logistics; a lack of supplies, including food and ammunition; very few vehicles and no airpower – and compensated for them. They attacked at night, for example, to counteract American air superiority, and infiltrated the gaps between units instead of confronting the Allies head on. They were good at close combat, often rendering American artillery useless."

Although often superficial ("war for Chinese strategists is primarily psychological and political") Allison doesn't stress the inevitability of a preemptive strike by ruling power, as Waldron refutes in his review, but the general danger of a strongly shifting balance of power ("Thucydidean stress"). That point seems valid to me, despite Allison's lack of deep knowledge of China. Allison also does not mainly argue for appeasement as Waldron seems to think, but gives a set of vague recommendations like "clarify national interests" and "do strategy."

Professor Waldron is the smartest guy I've ever met and at least when I was in classes he taught his predictions were almost entirely correct.

He was predicting the conventional arms build up as an alternative to nuclear proliferation in South East Asia more than a decade ago- although it was never quite clear to me which he would have preferred.

It's quite amusing that the smartest man you ever met also happens to be phenomenally wrong, and neither you nor he even have the self awareness to recognize it. There is no arms race in Southeast Asia nor was there one. There is no conventional arms build up whatsoever. The dishonesty of the Pentagon seems to have percolated via its incestuous beltway academic nexus. The US always couches its own defense spending in inflation adjusted real percentages while reporting on foreign expenditures in nominal terms. This has the intentional side effect of misleading an innumerate press and public.

The simple fact that defense spending as a percentage of government budgets as well as GDP is either stagnant or down across Asia since the end of the Cold War. Nominal dollar terms they are up but the dollar simply isn't worth what it once was and military capabilities are at levels considerably lower than they were. The Philippines on paper is significantly increasing its defense spending in the past few years but in truth it is more defenseless today than it was 20 years ago,having to suffer the ignominy of having to use its army (poorly) to the secure sovereignty of its own cities. China's defense spending as percentage of total government spending and gdp declining from around 4% 30 years ago to 1.5% today. So much for militarization. Shinzo Abes new assertive defense budget? A 0.25% increase off a base 1%. There is much breathless talking and hysterics in beltway circles about defense spending in Asia but like the campus rape epidemic (at least the ones not involving black student athletes) a detailed review of both orbats and exchequers would show this to be entirely hot air.

Good article link by TC, I've also said the same thing about China and using energy for output. Using ex-USSR countries I concluded well over 10 years ago that China's GDP was overstated by roughly 50%. And the population is aging. Only some burst of nationalism from something like trying to take over Taiwan (Panama just dropped recognition of Taiwan) might make China dangerous.

Many of the Chinese exports are via HongKong which used most of the energy shuffling papers. From Int. Energy Agency 2015, the GDP PPP$/KgOil,

Rank PPP$/KgO Country

1 23.81 HongKong_China

12 12.82 UK

36 9.8 Germany

42 9.26 Japan

63 7.52 India

79 6.71 USA

102 4.63 China

There is little difference between Arthur Waldron and Donald Trump. Both follow the same principle while writing - whether on Twitter or a book review - consider the facts, and then type out exactly the opposite conclusion one would draw from them.

Take the South China sea for instance. For all the talk of China "dislodging" the Philippines, consider this: Vietnam occupies 28 Spratlys, the Philippines 10, and Malaysia 5. And what about China, those commie bastards? Only 7. Hegemon indeed.

Moreover, it's not "China vs the rest' as orientalist newspapers such as The Economist try to portray. All other countries are in dispute with each other too. The US and its useful idiots are trying to get other countries to gang up against China. The court ruling (by an arbitrary court which has nothing to do with the UN) is an excellent excuse for the US and other countries to portray China as the troublemaker, a country whose military hasn't fired a single shot since 1979. The American military, on the other hand, has been constantly engaged in conflict since WW II. It has 50,000 troops stationed in Japan and another 30,000 in South Korea. It has surrounded China with its treaty allies: Japan, S. Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Australia. Similar court rulings have been rejected by the US (against Nicaragua), by the UK (against Argentina) and by Japan (against Australia) when the courts decided against them. And yet, it is China that must accept the ruling. All countries are equal, but the US and its allies are more equal than others.

America WANTS a "rules-based order", because it is America that creates the rules - and can lobby other countries to do so as well. It is no surprise that the US wants China to follow international law. However, America's failures in the region are glaring. The Philippines is already sick of it. Duterte has already publicly announced his "separation" from the US. People in Okinawa protest regularly to eject US soldiers stationed at a US base there. Cambodia and Laos are already close to the US - both economically and geopolitically. Vietnam recently announced that it will settle disputes bilaterally with China. South Korea recently put the remaining THAAD deployments on hold. Mongolia vowed never to invite the Dalai Lama again, after inviting him last year for the last time. So much for the "Pivot".

"Democracy" is an excellent excuse to interfere in other nations' affairs, and the NED is making full use of it. US-supported NGOs tried to stir up pro-democracy protests in the US (the so-called Umbrella revolution) and it was a disaster. In mainland China, there were as many protesters as foreign journalists. And major figureheads of the movement are quite young and susceptible to brainwashing, such as the 18-year old Joshua Wong and the 25-year old Yau Wai-ching. The former, for example, made an ass of herself by changing her oath of office and inserting a derogatory name for China, and thus was disqualified. The people voted for her, she had the chance to make a difference, and she scored one of the stupidest own goals in living memory. Joshua Wong, not to be outdone in his devotion to freedom, started a hunger strike, and then ended it after just 4 days. I guess indoctrination with "freedom" goes only so far, but craving for McDonald's French Fries is paramount.

While the US tries to divide the world, China is trying to unite it, with initiatives such as OBOR and the Maritime Silk Road, and AIIB. It is not a coincidence that wherever the US goes, death and destruction follows. And the converse is also true. Regions where America DOESN'T go, remain largely peaceful. The Asia Pacific is one region that has enjoyed largely unbroken peace for decades - thanks to US absence. While the Middle East and Latin America are some of the most violent regions in the world, and have a large US presence too, what luck!

The US is interfering in disputes on the other side of the globe, not to mention not having ratified the UNCLOS yet. America's interference is treated almost as something biblical - a fait accompli and something benevolent that shouldn't ever be questioned.While China, on the other hand, is an authoritarian communist dictatorship hell-bent on destroying the free world. After all, will you just look at China's violent record? Military hasn’t fired a single shot since 1979, has a military budget less than that of the US by a factor of 7, no foreign military presence, a publicly proclaimed NFU policy, fought extremely limited wars and conflicts (most of them related to border disputes), has resolved land-border disputes with 12 out of its 14 neighbors, publicly acknowledges that it is weaker than the US, no chest thumping from its leaders, never assassinated any foreign leader, doesn't interfere in elections, doesn’t export its system of government to other nations, doesn’t interfere in other nations’ affairs...

Yes - China is so aggressive. Maybe it should learn something from peaceful nations like the United States.

840 words=840 kernels of rice. You're going to eat like a king tonight!

+1. "The Asia Pacific is one region that has enjoyed largely unbroken peace for decades – thanks to US absence. While the Middle East and Latin America are some of the most violent regions in the world, and have a large US presence too, what luck!" is particularly rich.

China forges ahead at breakneck speed while America ponders its future. What? China is an industrial juggernaut but sees itself as at the leading edge of technology. Meanwhile, GE and its new CEO ponder GE's future: is GE an industrial company or a technology company? Why not both? Can GE, can China, be at the leading edge of industrial production and technology? Cowen often cites data that seem to contradict the notion that America is no longer the world's leading industrial nation, even though that same data reflect far fewer employees in the industrial sector. Can a nation prosper by specializing, or must it be a conglomerate? China forges ahead as a conglomerate while America leans toward specializing. Indeed, China turns trade theory on its head. Meanwhile, with its One Belt, One Road initiative, China is turning its neighbors into partners, even as America turns its back on those same neighbors by rejecting the TPP trade agreement that was intended to make China's neighbors America's partners. The contrast between China and America could not be starker. I'm hoping GE's new CEO chooses both industrial production and technology, even if it means GE must partner with Google or Microsoft.

breakneck speed? since when wasting resources is a method to become rich? you can waste and still become rich, but it's not the right way.

China does have "economic vulnerabilities", but not what is typically identified. Instead, China is vulnerable to political instability triggered by widespread losses of ordinary Chinese who invest in risky products that promise impossibly high returns as ordinary Chinese look forward to old age without anything like social security. When Anbang collapses, and takes the savings of millions of Chinese with it, Trump's closest business adviser and Trump's son in law will have contributed to the collapse. Will ordinary Chinese consider America a friend if they come to believe it was Americans that caused the loss of their savings? Trump's son in law may have thought he was clever for almost dumping a bad investment on Anbang, but the political consequences could be catastrophic. When Anbang collapses, will China's political leadership accept the blame? Or will China's political leadership point the blame at the American president and his family and friends?

I don't know what surprises me more in the Waldron essay, it's sheer stupidity or its dishonesty. All of the so called old China hands in the West are so out of touch it leads me to suspect senility is at play.

Specifics? What parts are stupid or dishonest?

The part where he doesn't reflexively shill for the Chinese postion and find this guy a wife so he stops being sexually frustrated.

I don't believe I've had the pleasure to make your acquaintance, I thought I was familiar with most of Marginal Revolution's regular dumb asses but I seemed to have missed one.

You've got to give the China shills a break. Writing 1000 pro-China posts per day from a dark, locked room in some Chinese government building can't be easy.

"Pose' moar or no rice fo' you tonigh'!"

First would be dredging up the good old Yang Jiechi misquote from 2010. It is often cited by the Western (American) Press as a sign of Chinese arrogance, but this is extremely dishonest because it only quoted half the comment. I don't have the transcripts at hand but what he actually said was more akin that China was a big country and other countries were smaller and this was just a fact that could not be changed so relations between China and her neighbors will forever involved a degree of asymmetrical threat perceptions that China would not be able to entire negate. This misquote has become part of the mythology of American poli-sci nonsense regarding China.

Defaulting s carbon shoal as Philippine territory is problematic but I don't particularly care, but calling stepped up Chinese coast Guard patrols an "attack" is again brazenly dishonest.

The off hand reference to socotra rock as a Korean island China would like is another flat out lie. The dispute between South Korea and China is a classifications issue as to whether or not a submerged rock feature can be used to extend South Korea EEZ and China doesn't contest South Korean "ownership" of said rock. Such shoddy misrepresentation of the facts from one of so called leading China "experts" doesn't inspire any confidence elsewhere.

There is also the citing of readers digest level non facts such as the nonsensical "standard energy unit" per cents of product or water resources which are allegedly hard to find but are in fact not. Not only are they easy to find but just as easy to find out that Waldron is engaged in more sloppiness. Anyone can check nominal Gdp values per Tw/hr to identify so called "efficiency" if one discounts the make-up of the economic. Also pretty easy to check annual renewable freshwater cubic meters per capita. Turns out China has an order of magnitude more than Sudan and has almost identified resources to such well known desert wastelands such as Denmark.

I could write a lot more where Waldron falls short but I'm writing this up on a cell phone and my fingers hurt so ill leave that for later.

The issue is fundamentally an ideological divergence between the American left elite and the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese policy hasn't really seen any change under Xi Jinping and has been fairly consistent since Deng. Therein lies the problem. The Chinese have never made any pretense as to wanting to become a democracy or adopt American liberalism as its confession, yet the Americans have always kept the faith that they would somehow come around and within the heart of every Chinaman is Yankee waiting to be born. Thus every year China became more developed was a year China was becoming more like America. The Communist Party suffered no such illusions and would suffer no such attempts to make those illusions a reality and regarded American elites with something close to contempt. The Chinese peoples themselves too were insufficiently zealous in their adaptation of Western leftist. This all came to a boil sometime early in the Obama administration where the elite left were at their apogee where they attempted a grand bargain of sorts to bring China into the so called "International" system which was firmly rebuffed. This had led to a growing sense of disillusionment and even betrayal that China was not going to become what was expected of it. This has in turn resulted in in a growing sense of hostility and outright schadenfreude laced malice directed against China by those such as Waldron and his ilk and those same Western leftist elites are now ramping up the agitprop in a feeble attempt to bring China to heel or perhaps even a color revolution.

Thanks for the response.

Waldron argues that when the elites lost their grip, popular passions took over and the war continued. It's been years since I've studied the conflict, but perhaps something like the "Thucydides Trap" was influencing public opinion. At any rate, the question, "Why did lots of people favor fighting," goes unanswered.

Anyway Athens-Sparta in the Peloponnesian wars is a very odd analytical comparanda for US-China relations given that Athens had always been bigger and richer than Sparta, and besides that the role of Persia which was that era's sole superpower.

"I’d wager that the xxxx would smother an unintended conflict. They are, after all, not idiots." Welcome to 1913.

If China is inefficient at using energy... Does that suggest a big upside as they become more efficient?

Yes, but for a more usual use of the word "efficient" China is much more efficient with energy than say Australia or the United states. Their fleet of thermal power stations are newer and so more efficient than Australia's and I presume the US's. Energy spent on heating warms more people per unit, energy spent on transport moves more people per unit, energy spent on food currently feeds more people per unit. While there is still plenty of space for efficiency improvements, such as getting oil out of transportation, there is more room for energy efficiency improvements in nations that are sloppier with their energy use such as the US.

The ancient side of this topic has been kicking around my head, and the conclusion I seem to be coming to is that the Peloponnesian war was inevitable because in the ancient world war was pretty much always inevitable.

In the first Peloponnesian war Sparta wasn't just scared of Athens' rise, it could see that it faced a choice between passively waiting as its potential allies got picked off until the inevitable invasion and incorporation into the Athenian empire, or rallying those potential allies to immediate war.

In the second war, Athens knew Persia would attack again eventually and Persia knew that if it didn't find a way to attack Athens without rallying the whole of Greece, the Athens-supported splintering of its Aegean provinces would lead inevitably to a direct attack on the empire.

The latter seems the closer parallel to US-China, but to make it work at all China would have to at least be supporting a secessionist government in Hawaii. Some reef off the coast of the Philippines just does not compare.

And so it goes with just about any parallel one could try to pull from the ancient world - Assyria Urartu? Assyria Elam? One of the Mesopotamian-Egyptian conflicts? Nothing really comes at all close to US-China. If today were like the ancient world, the US-China war would have already started a long time ago.

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