China has recently undergone some interesting political changes which could lead to a conflict with another powerful country.
In October, China’s Communist Party held its 19th National Congress. Current leader Xi Jinping further consolidated his power by having his ideology put into the party constitution, putting him into the same category as former leader Mao Zedong. Mr. Jinping also did not select a successor, allowing him to potentially continue as General Secretary of the Communist Party for more than two terms once his term expires in 2022.
“In numerous private conversations, over the years senior (sometimes very senior) party cadres would tell me that western-style democracy was the goal for China, but the transition must be gradual and carefully sequenced so as not to unleash chaos. Nobody is saying that now.”
Mr. Jinping is leading China back to a dictatorship/authoritarian system, undoing two generations of work. Proving the point, the Chinese government sent a man to prison for two years for sending a private message mocking Mr. Jinping on Chinese WeChat.
This transition towards a more authoritarian system will create conflict between China and the U.S.A. As Graham Allison excellently outlines for Foreign Affairs, conditions are ripe for a ‘clash of civilizations’ scenario. That term was coined by prominent political scientist Samuel Huntington in the 1990s, and has most famously been applied to the situation between the Western and Muslim worlds.
Mr. Allison makes a compelling case as to why the term should be applied to China and the U.S.A. There are a myriad of differences- cultural values, language, political system and some dangerous similarities- both nations believe they are ‘exceptional’ and a model for others to follow- which make misunderstandings all the more likely.
Further complicating matters, China is a rising power while the U.S.A. is an established power. As Greek historian Thucydides wrote concerning the war between city-states Sparta and Athens, “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable.”
The U.S.A. has to be very careful to avoid this trap, considering the myriad cultural and institutional differences between it and China. For years, the U.S.A. and its allies have seen countries with authoritarian traditions like Germany and Japan transform and become members of the ‘advanced liberal democracies’ club.
China probably will not follow that model, at least in the near future, and we will have to adapt. Otherwise, war is a real possibility.
What would Thucydides say?