- U.S.-China tensions look eerily like the rivalry between Britain and Germany before World War I.
- Let’s hope it doesn’t end the same way.
Animosity between China and the U.S. was already bad when the year started, and it just keeps getting worse. Whether the two powers are hurling accusations over Covid-19, shutting each other’s consulates, rattling sabers in the South China Sea, escalating their trade war, or simply vilifying each other in speeches, they appear headed for ever more bitter clashes.
Some say this is a new Cold War. But that label doesn’t quite fit, because nothing about the standoff seems frozen, and the rest of the world is not (or not yet) split into opposing camps. This is a different kind of rivalry — one that will touch every aspect of global politics, economics, technology and finance as it heats up, and could one day end in a hot war.
Scholars call this kind of conflict spiral a “Thucydides trap.” It’s the apparent tendency, throughout history, toward war whenever a rising nation challenges an incumbent power. The label comes from the ancient Greek historian who so perceptively chronicled the complex Peloponnesian War, which he believed was ultimately caused by the rise of Athens and the fear this provoked in Sparta.
But in the case of the U.S. and China, there’s a much better analogy, as these historians and economists have described. It is the struggle between the British Empire and the up-and-coming German Empire after its unification in 1871.