Nowadays, a “China expert” is almost a term of abuse. Fortunately, not everyone is of the same calibre as Gordon Chang of The Coming Collapse of China infamy, first published in 2001. It’s going to happen any year now, he says, during the period when China emerged as the world’s second largest economy. Some seasoned commentators have actually made fairly accurate predictions, and/or sensible policy recommendations, for both China and the West. I have been following their work in recent years just so I can plagiarise their ideas for my column. There is a terribly interesting book by Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator at the Financial Times , first published in 2016 and titled Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century . At the time, I thought the last part of his book was almost bizarre, but now it has proved to be extremely prescient. After spending almost the entire book showing that China’s rise was inexorable, and that in time, every country would have to adjust to this new reality, Rachman argues that the West, led by the United States, must resist China for as long as they can. Kissinger warns China and US against escalating to all-out AI conflict Whatever you think about his conclusion, it has turned out to be the foreign policy route pursued by Washington. If there is any doubt, the latest Aukus nuclear submarine deal between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States should put it to rest. In his 2012 book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power , Hugh White, a former Australian official and now foreign policy don, shares Rachman’s assessment of China’s inexorable rise, but comes to the opposite conclusion, as you can tell from the book’s title. I think his conclusion follows logically from his assessment, but politics is not, usually, dictated by logic. If East Asia has become China’s own geopolitical backyard as a superpower, White points out, it cannot be expected to tolerate the US’ continuing hegemony in the region. Yet, Beijing cannot expect America to withdraw completely, hence the title about sharing power. It doesn’t look like this will happen any time soon. Long before the US’ disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, White had raised the question about how steadfastly Washington would stand behind its allies. He doesn’t think Australia should bet the ranch on the US for its security guarantee when push comes to shove with China. Therefore, Canberra should not be overtly hostile to China. Well, Australia has now bet the ranch on the US. In a 2019 debate sponsored by Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies and available on YouTube, White argued exactly this point with John Mearsheimer, a prominent American proponent of neo-realism in international relations (IR) who teaches at the University of Chicago. I am afraid Mearsheimer won the debate. As a realist, he argues Washington will use all its resources and means available to contain China and maintain its supremacy in Asia. It’s not a matter of standing by an ally like Australia, as White argues, but forcing Australia to join its anti-China crusade, including being potentially drawn into a military conflict in the event hostilities break out. Aukus has now made that frightful possibility all too real for ordinary Australians. If you’re trading extensively with China, and you’re friendly with China, you’re undermining the United States in this security competition John Mearsheimer Mearsheimer didn’t mince words in the debate. “You’re either with us or against us,” he said. “And if you’re trading extensively with China, and you’re friendly with China, you’re undermining the United States in this security competition. You’re feeding the beast, from our perspective. And that is not going to make us happy. And when we are not happy, you do not want to underestimate how nasty we can be. Just ask Fidel Castro.” Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, is usually considered a hardliner. But in an essay last year titled, “How to prevent ideological conflicts between China and the US”, he contrasts the prior “pragmatism” of Chinese foreign policy with its current ultra-assertive stance. “Cultural self-confidence teaches us ‘not to reject those who come from outside, nor to attempt to teach them our ways’,” he wrote. Diplomacy, in other words, should be about “live and let live”. Without using the phrase “wolf warrior” diplomacy, he warns that overtly vocal assertiveness will be used as an excuse for countries to turn against China. We may be long past “live and let live”, given the Western hostilities, even if Beijing had wanted to, but his warning about Chinese diplomatic overreach is right on the money. Is China ready to compete with the new US pivot to Asia? Yan is the leading proponent of a dominant Chinese school of international relations that tries to extract theoretical insights from the ancient Zhou, the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods and apply them to the contemporary world. In Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power , for example, Yan examines such pre-Qin (pre-Chinese unification) thinkers as Hanfeizi, Mozi, Guanzi, Mencius, Xunzi, Confucius and Lao Tzu. My historical taste goes in the reverse, so I am more intrigued by what they have to say about ancient Chinese state-relations, which were a lot like early modern European history. It’s interesting that many contemporary mainland Chinese IR scholars are still divided, roughly, between the ruthless and realist school of Hanfeizi under the heading of Legalism (the “hawks”) and the moralism of Confucius and Mencius (the “doves”). There is, finally, the book that apparently has set the terms of debate and influenced many people’s views on the matter in recent years: Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? I still haven’t read it, so I have nothing to say about it. But its popularity in the media did send me back to rereading Thucydides. The whole idea of the Thucydides trap is apparently based on a single sentence at the beginning of his History: “And the truest quarrel, though least in speech, I conceive to be the growth of the Athenian power, which putting the Lacedaemonians into fear necessitated the war.” Why China’s rise to financial dominance is inevitable This is Thomas Hobbes’ translation, which the editor and classicist David Grene criticises in a footnote: “Hobbes’ translation of this is hardly satisfactory,” he wrote. “Thucydides is contrasting the causes which lie deepest, which were also least put forward at the time, and the alleged causes. The expression ‘truest quarrel’ would be to modern ears better rendered ‘truest occasion’ or ‘cause’.” Unless you read Attic Greek or are a fan of Hobbes, whom I consider to be practically a Chinese Legalist writing in 17th-century English, most people would be better off reading the translation by Richard Crawley. You can tell exactly why from Crawley’s rendering of that same sentence: “The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.” I personally subscribe to the interpretation given by Diarmaid MacCulloch, that is, when two great powers come into material conflicts, they will behave in the most ruthless and ignominious manner, regardless of their domestic governance or political system. The whole book repeatedly exposes the ignominies of both Sparta and Athens. “Thucydides had grasped that vital historical insight that groups of people behave differently and have different motivations from individual human beings,” he wrote in A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years , “and that they often behave far more discreditably than individuals.” Unlike people, nations are trapped forever in a Hobbesian state of nature. China and the US are no different; and life there is nasty, brutish, though not necessarily short.