The US-China “Thucydides Trap” and Pakistan

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Ambassador G Rasool Baluch: In my earlier essay published in July 2020 in this paper, I had argued that the US, as a ruling global power, and China, as a rising global power, are caught in the “Thucydides Trap,” which The Harvard Professor Graham T Allison, in one of his lectures a year ago, alluded to as an inevitability (of course, with a caveat) of an armed clash between the Ruling Power (the US)and the Rising Power (China). His observation was based on his theory that took the name of the great Greek thinker, philosopher and the founder of History (c,460-400 BC ) Thucydides. He wrote his first History book called, “The History of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens,” 2500 years back. Athens, as a strong City State, was the Ruling Power and was challenged by Sparta, a Rising Power in ancient Greece. The Peloponnesian Wars resulted in the total ruin of Athens and the rise of Sparta as a leading power in Greece. The theory was put to test over the past 500 years by Harvard University, in which 16 conflicts between the Ruling Powers and the Rising Powers were observed during five centuries, and it came out that out of 16 cases of Thucydides Trap, 12 resulted in wars, which none of the protagonists won, and in the majority of the conflicts, the war was provoked by a third party.

Professor Allison argues that perhaps, with the meteoric rise of China as an economic global power and its endeavors to catch up with the US in technology and military power, the country is caught in the “Thucydides Trap.” The question is can the two sides defy the Thucydides Trap and escape the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which could result in a catastrophic military conflict, given the most devastating land, air, sea, nuclear, space, cyber, and an electromagnetic array of weapons the two sides possess. Since World War ll, the US as a leading global power has been waging wars all over the world, including in Latin America, East Asia, the Middle East, and West Asia. All the wars that the US Army has waged after the second World War have resulted at best as test grounds for new military weapons and at worst brought death, destruction, and misery to millions. While the Chinese President Mr Xi Jinping has declared that China must have a “modern army which can fight and win,” but Chinese leadership has adopted a “Dialectical Security Philosophy” contrary to US “Technological Superiority/Monopoly Philosophy.” The Chinese believe that there is no such thing as “Absolute Security” since, if one side develops an offensive weapons system, the targeted adversary will ultimately be able to develop its way to defend, so they bid for time, and do not normally rush in matters of war, while the US approach is to overwhelm the adversary with technically more sophisticated weapon systems. In the case of the China and US conflict, there is a rough parity, which constrains the US to undertake any precipitous Military venture without risking a matching Chinese response. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has added yet another complexity to US-China relations. China has reaffirmed the universally recognized principle of inviolability of internationally recognized state boundaries of sovereign nations. It has abstained on UN Resolutions tabled at the UN Security Council as well as UN General Assembly. The US-China confrontation for global dominance would most likely define the world order unfolding in the near future. Pakistan, in the past few decades, has deftly managed balanced foreign relations with the two world powers. Since 9/11, Pakistan was fully engaged as an active partner with the US in its war on terror albeit, at a substantial human and material cost. The relations with China termed as “all-weather Iron brothers ‘led to strategic partnership in China’s flagship multi-billion-dollar One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with a projected outlay of about 60 Billion US Dollars, was launched with lofty objectives to upgrade Pakistan’s infrastructure and strengthen its economy by the construction of modern transportation networks, several energy projects and special economic zones. There was a national consensus that Pakistan would not be part of any political block and that it would like to have balanced strategic relations with both the superpowers. However, the recent internal upheaval caused by the ouster of the PTI Government and the so-called “Lettergate “seems to have created a wave of anti-US sentiment. The former Prime Minister has been openly claiming that the US hatched a conspiracy to oust him and that the present government, which he calls the “imported government” has been foisted by the US.His public pronouncements are laced with nationalistic and anti-American rhetoric. According to analysts, the foreign conspiracy narrative helps Imran Khan deflect public anger away from his failure of governance and economic mismanagement during his tenure as PM . . Pakistan is in the midst of a serious economic crisis and its dependence on IMF and The World Bank for sailing through the economic crisis. Also, the Pakistan Military has a long strategic relationship with the US Military in terms of equipment, training and even Military Warfare doctrine. Therefore, it will be in Pakistan’s interest to continue this mutually beneficial relationship based on the universally recognized principle of sovereign equality.

Pakistan’s internal security is intrinsically linked to the peace and stability in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, unfortunately, seems to be descending into a status of a nonfunctional state with broken or nonexistent governance structures, the state actors are fast encroaching upon more space to extend their respective terrorist activities. The wave of terrorist acts in Afghanistan in which scores of civilians have died seems to be an attempt to deplete further the weak writ of the Taliban lead government in Kabul. As stated earlier by one of the US intelligence officials, international terrorist outfits could launch terrorist operations against the US and the West. The US will require Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan. The US and Pakistan have a strategic interest in not allowing international terrorist organizations to regroup and launch large scale terrorist operations in the world from the Afghan territory.

Pakistan and India, two historical rivals, are armed with nuclear weapons. The relations between the two neighbours have deteriorated in the past three years since India illegally annexed the disputed territory of Indian occupied Kashmir by abrogating the Indian Constitution article 370 The US-Pakistan relations also are vital for keeping nuclear restraint in South and West Asia. The “accidental” firing of an Indian ICBM on Pakistan’s populated area is a stark reminder of the very thin nuclear risk threshold on which nuclear deterrence rests in South Asia. Pakistan- US relations have strategic significance for Nuclear Security in South Asia.

There are a number of mutual strategic interests that should bind Pakistan -USA relations. The two countries are following a democratic and Parliamentary system, the respective democratic deficiencies notwithstanding. The two countries should continue to cooperate for strengthening democracy and democratic institutions from threats posed by indigenous as well as exogenous anti-democratic Forces.

In my view, Pakistan does not have to choose sides in the unfolding of what can be termed as a “Bipolar-Plus World Order,” in which the US and China would be the main global actors, while there would be other centers of power with varying degrees of areas of ascendancy and global reach, which may include EU (dominated by Germany and France), India, and Japan in Asia Brazil in Latin America, South Africa and Nigeria in the African Continent. In the unfolding Bipolar Plus World Order, Pakistan’s geostrategic and geo-economic interests can only be ensured by following a balanced foreign policy, which should follow the golden principle of friendship with all and malaise against none.