Re­al­ity check will show dou­ble trap is avoid­able

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

Top Chi­nese diplo­matWang Yi’s call for “Amer­i­can friends” to “brush up” onWorldWar II his­to­ry­may not ring any bells with­Wash­ing­ton, be­cause, un­like then, the two coun­tries to­day are not fight­ing shoul­der to shoul­der against a com­mon en­emy. In­stead, they find them­selves pit­ted against each other in a murky, yet nonethe­less in­creas­ingly touted, nar­ra­tive about the trans­fer of global lead­er­ship. US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s iso­la­tion­ist “Amer­ica First” in­au­gu­ral ad­dress and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s pro-glob­al­iza­tion speech in Davos seem to have in­deli­bly re­in­forced that nar­ra­tive for some.

And the im­pres­sion that a ris­ing China is seek­ing to take the United States’ place at the head of the global ta­ble has lent cre­dence to warn­ings the two coun­tries will be caught in the Thucy­dides trap, which in turn has fu­eled at­tempts to iden­tify po­ten­tial flash­points. The South China Sea is a pop­u­lar can­di­date in this re­gard. How­ever, whileWang’s re­marks on the South China Sea were not meant as a tai­lored re­sponse to the un­der­lin­ing of diplo­macy first by US De­fense Sec­re­tary JamesMat­tis, their re­marks to­gether point to a shared in­ter­est in cri­sis pre­ven­tion.

WhileMat­tis es­sen­tially ex­cluded mil­i­tary moves onWash­ing­ton’s part, at this point at least, the core mes­sage ofWang’s ref­er­ence to his­tory and em­pha­sis on Bei­jing’s per­sis­tent peace­mak­ing with other stake­hold­ers is clear: There is no rea­son for con­flict between China and theUS in or over the South China Sea.

Given its in­di­rect, in­for­mal na­ture, such in­ter­ac­tion may not suf­fice to elim­i­nate, or even sub­stan­tially de-es­ca­late, the ten­sions and wor­ries that have arisen with the nar­ra­tive of loom­ing con­flict. But it is of far-reach­ing sig­nif­i­cance for Bei­jing and Washington to ex­change vows not to seek con­fronta­tion at such a crit­i­cal junc­ture.

The most sen­si­tive part of the nar­ra­tive of im­pend­ing con­flict is mis­read­ing China’s na­tional strength and its al­leged de­sire to su­per­sede the US, an al­le­ga­tion that de­fies the re­peated em­pha­sis by Chi­nese lead­ers they have no de­sire for global dom­i­nance.

Har­vard pro­fes­sor Joseph Nye has cau­tioned Trump to be wary of the Kindle­berger trap, the im­pres­sion that China seems too weak rather than too strong, as well as the Thucy­dides trap, trig­gered by the im­pres­sion that China is too strong. His warn­ing de­serves se­ri­ous at­ten­tion be­cause it re­minds us of the im­por­tance of a re­al­ity check.

This is some­thing that is more im­per­a­tive than ever if the emerg­ing nar­ra­tive is not to be misguided by per­cep­tions that turn it into a self-ful­fill­ing proph­esy.

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