Many of those peering with trepidation into 2019 have first turned to the past, to see what lessons history offers as a great power rises and the hegemon falters. Some look back two and a half millennia to the Peloponnesian war and the idea of the “Thucydides trap”: that war is made inevitable by the emergence of a new power (Athens) and the fear of the established leader (Sparta). Others draw on more recent transitions to suggest that powers moderate behaviour in times of decline or retrenchment. However it plays out in the long run, there is trouble ahead – and not only for the US and China.
With evidence mounting of the impact of the trade war between the world’s two largest economies, Donald Trump has boasted of “big progress” towards a potential deal. But whatever is being discussed on tariffs and intellectual property protection, few believe that the fragile ceasefire will lead to lasting harmony. Forty years after the establishment of full diplomatic relations, a broader conflict underlies the economic grievances: “On most issues of consequence, there is simply no overlap between [Xi Jinping’s] vision for China’s rise and what the United States considers an acceptable future for Asia and the world beyond,” warns Ely Ratner, a former deputy national security adviser.
Mr Xi has ditched Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that China should hide its light and bide its time, instead asserting it as a great nation “approaching the centre of the world stage”. Beijing is cautious in tackling Washington, and probably sincere when it says it does not seek global hegemony. It wants international order, and the US is useful in maintaining it. But it also wants to reshape that order – and its growing reach poses new challenges.
The sheer ambition of Mr Xi’s landmark Belt and Road Initiative is daunting. A deadly attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi has highlighted the potential vulnerability of one key element, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through volatile areas where it is impossible to free-ride on US-created security. Beijing is undoubtedly preparing for these issues. Actually meeting them may be another matter, especially as it deals with the reaction of its public on the one hand and international players on the other.
As a candidate, Mr Trump spoke of China “raping” the US. His stance resonates with voters in places where manufacturing vanished, with the jobs resurfacing half a world away. (That it helps to distract from Russian election meddling, and questions of his campaign’s complicity, is surely a bonus.) A year ago, the US national security strategy described a new era of “great power competition”. In October, the US vice-president, Mike Pence, gave a speech widely regarded as a harbinger of a new cold war. Some fear that in the longer run a hot war is not out of the question, perhaps with growing tensions over maritime power in the Pacific leading to missteps or misunderstandings.
Yet the advent of Mr Trump should have been an opportunity for China as well as a danger. Instead, the turn against Beijing is not only due to “death-by-China” hawks. It has happened across the political spectrum, and across the west. Those who once hoped for liberalisation see no hope in the face of the increasingly stifling and authoritarian domestic situation, exemplified by Nobel peace prize-winner Liu Xiaobo’s death in custody, the detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims without charge or trial, and the axing of the presidential term limit, effectively extending Mr Xi’s rule indefinitely.
Abroad, there is increasing alarm around China’s “sharp power”: its attempt not just to seek support, through typical public diplomacy, but to determine and control views overseas, often through covert means. It is increasingly strident in its rhetoric: last year it declared that the Sino-British joint declaration on the return of Hong Kong – a legally binding agreement – no longer had “any practical significance”.
In Asia, where there have long been concerns about China’s militarisation of islands in the South China Sea, anxiety is spreading about its broader influence. Beijing’s 99-year lease on the Hambantota port – taken when Sri Lanka could not afford to repay hefty loans – has set alarm bells ringing. In Africa there is popular as well as elite concern about potential debt traps. But nations there are understandably unimpressed by a man who reportedly called them “shitholes” and whose recent “Africa strategy” is blatantly more about China than the continent. Another US president might steer a defter and wiser course, yet still might not provide more of the money and infrastructure they are seeking.
In this charged and delicate environment, smaller nations are especially vulnerable, either as incidental damage or because they are a safer target than the US: Canadian citizens are essentially being held hostage in the Huawei row. The US president not only humiliates his allies but offers to undercut them. Other countries must attempt to pick their way through, defending their own interests.
To do so they need to devote more attention and resources to understanding what China is doing and why it matters, neither ignoring nor reflexively opposing its actions. Beijing’s “16+1” diplomatic platform with central and eastern European nations is perfectly legitimate, but the EU should follow its work closely. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will provide much-needed funding; its operations also deserve close scrutiny. Especially keen awareness is needed of the attempts to reshape narratives and muffle discussion of human rights.
Tactics matter too. Any attempt to target the Chinese diaspora would be wrong and counterproductive; alarmingly, the Trump administration reportedly considered ending Chinese student visas. And when the US president does not show allies respect, as his outgoing defence secretary has made clear, solidarity elsewhere is all the more crucial. The EU’s members have a tendency to sell out long-term collective interests for short-term individual advantage. Yet it is essential. And Britain is now choosing to go it alone.
That is especially perilous when our economies and people are interconnected as never before, with common as well as competitive interests. Some fear the danger of China doing not too much but too little. On climate change it is stepping up as the US steps away – albeit falling well short of what is needed. The past offers necessarily imperfect parallels for this globalised age. It can warn us of traps and obstacles, but cannot plot the difficult path ahead.