US aca­demic hails speed of China’s de­vel­op­ment, urges Bei­jing and Wash­ing­ton to avoid con­flict

China Daily (Canada) - - YEARS ON - By ZHANG RU­INAN in Bos­ton, US ru­inanzhang@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

When asked about the changes in China that have im­pressed him most in the past four decades of re­form and open­ing-up, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Gra­ham Al­li­son thought for a mo­ment and then pointed out­side his of­fice win­dow.

“When I gave a pre­sen­ta­tion on my Thucy­dides Trap book to my stu­dents, I showed the bridge that’s right un­der my of­fice win­dow here — the An­der­son Bridge at Har­vard — and I com­pared it with the Sanyuan Bridge in Bei­jing,” said Al­li­son, au­thor of Des­tined for War: Can Amer­ica and China Es­cape Thucy­dides’s Trap?

Al­li­son said dis­cus­sion of the ren­o­va­tion of the An­der­son Bridge be­gan when he was dean of Har­vard’s John F. Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment.

“And I quit be­ing the dean in 1989,” he said. “The project be­gan in earnest in 2012. It was a two-year project; and in 2014, they said it was not fin­ished, it would take another year. In 2015, they said, ‘Not yet, there will be one more year’. 2016 they said, ‘We’re not telling you when it will be fin­ished.’

“But in Bei­jing, the Sanyuan Bridge, which has twice as many traf­fic lanes as the bridge at Har­vard, … in 2015, the Chi­nese de­cided they wanted to ren­o­vate that bridge. How long did it take for the Chi­nese to ren­o­vate this bridge — the project that took Amer­i­cans more than four years? Only 43 hours.

“This is a pretty dra­matic illustration of how China has very mod­ern con­struc­tion tech­niques, so that could be a very good les­son for Amer­i­cans to learn,” Al­li­son said.

But the con­trast in the bridge ren­o­va­tions is just one ex­am­ple of the ac­com­plish­ments China has made over the past 40 years, he said.

This year marks the 40th an­niver­sary of China’s re­form and open­ing-up, a pol­icy ini­ti­ated by Deng Xiaop­ing at the Third Plenum of the 11th Com­mu­nist Party of China Cen­tral Com­mit­tee in De­cem­ber 1978.

These eco­nomic changes were so far­reach­ing that Deng de­scribed them as part of China’s “sec­ond revo­lu­tion”.

Since then, the coun­try has be­come an eco­nomic gi­ant with the world’s largest for­eign reserves ($3.2 tril­lion) and sec­ond-largest GDP ($12 tril­lion), while for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment in China reached $135 bil­lion last year.

Ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg, China’s share of the global econ­omy had grown from 1.8 per­cent in 1978 to 15 per­cent by 2017.

“I first went to China in the 1980s,” Al­li­son said. “At that time, Shang­hai was hardly Shang­hai to­day. Ev­ery­body wore the same clothes, ev­ery­body seemed to strug­gle with life; there were not many cars, not much ma­jor build­ing … a poor coun­try and not that mod­ern.”

Al­li­son said he was in­vited by one of his stu­dents — the first Chi­nese to study for a mas­ter’s at the Har­vard Kennedy School. To­day, more than 1,000 Chi­nese stu­dents are en­rolled at Har­vard.

“But China now, in Shang­hai or Bei­jing or any of other hun­dreds of cities, is a mod­ern won­der,” Ali­son said. “In­fra­struc­ture, air­ports, sub­ways, sky­scrapers, cars, all look very mod­ern. They are mod­ern cities in­deed.

“If you look at the open­ing up of peo­ples’ minds, the im­prove­ment is also very sig­nif­i­cant. In 1978, most Chi­nese peo­ple never trav­eled abroad, but to­day about 10 to 15 per­cent of Chi­nese have trav­eled abroad. How­ever, the big­gest ac­com­plish­ment of the re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy is what I call in­vert­ing the pyra­mid of poverty — in 1978, 90 per­cent of Chi­nese were liv­ing be­low the World Bank’s ex­treme poverty line of $2 per day.”

As a re­sult of re­form and open­ing-up over the past 40 years, the pyra­mid has been turned on its head, “and now only 1 per­cent live be­low the ex­treme poverty level”, Al­li­son said. “The fact that in this sin­gle life­time, some peo­ple have seen a 50-fold rise in their stan­dard of liv­ing is amaz­ing,” he added.

Ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese gov­ern­ment statis­tics, 250 mil­lion peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas lived be­low the na­tional poverty line in 1978. By the end of last year, the fig­ure had fallen to 30 mil­lion.

In 2000, the United Na­tions an­nounced eight mil­len­nium de­vel­op­ment goals, and at the top of that list was to halve the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in ex­treme poverty be­fore 2015. Just four years later, in 2004, Robert Zoel­lick, then pres­i­dent of the World Bank, de­clared that “China’s ef­forts alone” had put the world on track to achieve this goal.

“Be­tween 1981 and 2004, China suc­ceeded in lift­ing more than half a bil­lion peo­ple out of ex­treme poverty,” Zoel­lick said. “This is cer­tainly the great­est leap to over­come poverty in his­tory.”

In 2010, five years ahead of dead­line, Zoel­lick de­clared mis­sion ac­com­plished, thanks pri­mar­ily to China’s suc­cess.

China’s rail­way de­vel­op­ment has also im­pressed Al­li­son. He said the only high­speed rail project in the US has been un­der con­struc­tion for more than 10 years — the 804-kilo­me­ter link be­tween Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco — and is slated for com­ple­tion in 2029.

In China, over the same amount of time, maybe about 25,000 km of high-speed rail could be built, he said.

In his book Des­tined for War, Al­li­son para­phrases former Czech Repub­lic pres­i­dent Va­clav Havel as say­ing the rise of China has hap­pened so quickly that we have not yet had time to be as­ton­ished.

“For many Amer­i­cans, be­ing No 1 is a core part of our iden­tity,” said the Har­vard pro­fes­sor, who ex­plained that hav­ing to cope with a na­tion on par with the US — and in some ar­eas has even sur­passed it — is a dif­fi­cult propo­si­tion for peo­ple to wrap their heads around.

“For a rul­ing power that has be­come ac­cus­tomed to its po­si­tion and pre­rog­a­tives at the top of ev­ery peck­ing or­der, the very fact that a ris­ing power threat­ens to match or even over­take it is un­der­stand­ably un­com­fort­able,” he said.

“So it was for Sparta, which had been the dom­i­nant power in Greece for 100 years, and for Bri­tain at the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tury after 100 years in which it had ‘ruled the waves’ and main­tained an ‘ em­pire on which the sun never set’. So it is for the USA after an ‘Amer­i­can cen­tury’.

“In this dy­namic, be­yond the facts, per­cep­tions tend to be­come ex­ag­ger­ated mis­per­cep­tions, cal­cu­la­tions of­ten be­come mis­cal­cu­la­tions.”

Amer­i­cans who are cer­tain that China is de­ter­mined to dis­place the US as the global su­per­power in­ter­pret ev­ery ac­tion China takes as con­fir­ma­tion of this con­vic­tion, even when the coun­try seeks to be con­cil­ia­tory, Al­li­son said.

Sim­i­larly, he added, Chi­nese who are cer­tain that the US is de­ter­mined to con­tain China’s rise in­ter­pret ev­ery Amer­i­can ac­tion through that lens, even when the US is try­ing to be help­ful.

He warned that a tar­iff war be­tween the world’s two largest economies could do se­ri­ous dam­age to both sides. But eco­nomic dam­age from a trade war is not the most sig­nif­i­cant risk.

“When a ris­ing power threat­ens to dis­place a rul­ing power, this cre­ates a dan­ger­ous dy­namic in which both the ris­ing and rul­ing pow­ers are vul­ner­a­ble to third-party provo­ca­tions that would, in nor­mal con­di­tions, be in­con­se­quen­tial or eas­ily man­aged but that can trig­ger a spi­ral to a re­sult nei­ther of the pri­mary com­peti­tors wanted,” Al­li­son said.

“If Thucy­dides were watch­ing, he would say both na­tions are on script head­ing to­ward a cat­a­strophic col­li­sion.”

The Thucy­dides Trap — a phrase coined by Al­li­son to de­scribe the like­li­hood of con­flict be­tween a ris­ing power and a dom­i­nant power — has been of­ten used re­gard­ing Sino-US re­la­tions in re­cent years.

To avoid the trap, the two na­tions should first rec­og­nize how dan­ger­ous the out­come might be and then find a new form of great­power re­la­tions to avoid it, Al­li­son said.

He noted that in the past 500 years, there have been 16 cases in which a ris­ing power threat­ened to top­ple a rul­ing power from its pre­dom­i­nant po­si­tion. Twelve of those cases led to war.

“In this process of tit-for-tat, (a trade con­flict) could es­ca­late into more and more dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory,” he said, ad­ding that in the lens of this dy­namic, mis­per­cep­tions are mag­ni­fied, mis­cal­cu­la­tions mul­ti­plied, and risks of es­ca­la­tion am­pli­fied.

“If we study his­tory, the case of Ja­pan, which was ris­ing in the 1930s, ri­val­ing the US, which was the pre­dom­i­nant power in the western Pa­cific and main­tained an open­door pol­icy.

“As Ja­pan grew stronger, the US said ‘No, you have to stop this ex­pan­sion.’ So ini­tially, the US im­posed eco­nomic tar­iffs, and then an em­bargo on ex­ports of high-grade scrap iron and avi­a­tion fuel to Ja­pan. And fi­nally, in 1940, an em­bargo on oil, which the Ja­panese be­lieved would stran­gle them slowly. Un­der those con­di­tions, they con­cluded that it was bet­ter to at­tack Amer­ica.”

Speak­ing of the cur­rent China-US trade dis­pute, Al­li­son said, “Even worse than the eco­nomic im­pact would be if it should be­come part of the fuel that pro­duces fire.”

Over the past four decades, the US has viewed China as a strate­gic part­ner, he said. But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion now pub­licly calls China a “strate­gic ri­val” or “ad­ver­sary”, which shows a fun­da­men­tal shift in the way Wash­ing­ton thinks about China and how the US should re­late to it.

“That (shift) in this Thucy­dides dy­namic makes it even more dan­ger­ous,” he said. “In this dy­namic, we should ask the ques­tion Pres­i­dent Xi (Jin­ping) asked, which is how to es­cape the Thucy­dides Trap. That’s the right ques­tion to ask.”

Dur­ing the Chi­nese pres­i­dent’s state visit to the US in 2015, Xi and former US pres­i­dent Barack Obama dis­cussed the Thucy­dides Trap at the White House. Xi said China and the US should pre­vent re­la­tions from fall­ing into the trap.

In a speech de­liv­ered to lo­cal govern­ments and friendly groups in Seat­tle dur­ing the same trip, Xi said: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucy­dides Trap in the world. But should ma­jor coun­tries time and again make the mis­takes of strate­gic mis­cal­cu­la­tion, they might cre­ate such traps for them­selves.”

Al­li­son said that the first step to es­cap­ing the Thucy­dides Trap is to rec­og­nize the trap and how dan­ger­ous it is. The sec­ond step is find­ing a way to es­cape it.

“Pres­i­dent Xi’s idea is we should have a new form of great-power re­la­tions. I think this is a great idea. Now we have to con­struct all the el­e­ments of the new form,” the pro­fes­sor said, in­di­cat­ing that the process would re­quire the two na­tions to co­op­er­ate.

“So far, the re­sponse by both govern­ments and thought lead­ers in both so­ci­eties has been un­der­whelm­ing. There is no mo­nop­oly of wis­dom on these top­ics in Wash­ing­ton or Bei­jing, or in uni­ver­sity towns like Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts,” he said.

“So this is an op­por­tu­nity for all think­ing peo­ple to stretch their minds.”

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