Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Suppose both China and the US are in decline …

  • There is plenty of data out there that would paint a pretty grim picture of both countries; and coupled with their belligerence, they are, together, the real problem for the rest of the world

Economics has been called the dismal science. That’s an undeserved reputation. Rather I think political science is the undisputed dismal science. First of all, it’s really not a science. It’s a subject wherein once you have taken a political or ideological position, you can amass any evidence and facts to explain, support and justify it. We all do that in our personal and professional life, so how is that sort of self-justification/rationalisation “science”? Perhaps only with more graphs and statistics, and occasionally with a few meaningless maths equations thrown in.

I was led to this bitter train of thought after someone emailed me a new article, “China Is a Declining Power – and That’s the Problem”, in Foreign Policy. Please note I am not upset because my inner Chinese patriot is offended by the claim. Frankly, it may well be the case with China today, or not. I just don’t know. What really frustrates me is that the authors, both American political science profs, of course, are arguing against other political scientists, who argue “China is the rising power – and that’s the problem”. (Sorry, I summarised the last bit, but I think that’s the gist.)

So, is China rising or falling? Political scientists, especially in the United States, can’t seem to agree. But what both schools seem to think is that China is the problem for the US, and the world in general. In that case, maybe it’s just something intrinsically bad about the Chinese, regardless of the trajectory of their national progress?

The two authors, Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, are of course, targeting the Thucydides Trap idea, popularised by Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, but more respectably called “power transition theory” among academics.

China’s officials play up ‘rise of the East, decline of the West’

A rising power and a declining power make a bad combination for international peace. One side demands recognition, the other side respect. One wants to upset the existing order, the other wants to maintain it.

“The danger of war will skyrocket as a surging China overtakes a sagging America,” the pair wrote, summarising Allison. “As tensions between the United States and China escalate, the belief that the fundamental cause of friction is a looming ‘power transition’ – the replacement of one hegemon by another – has become canonical.”

But that’s all wrong, the two tell us, because China is the one in decline or at least peaking, and the US is not. But wouldn’t that logically make China NOT the problem? No, not at all, they say.

They write: “A dissatisfied state has been building its power and expanding its geopolitical horizons. But then the country peaks, perhaps because its economy slows, perhaps because its own assertiveness provokes a coalition of determined rivals, or perhaps because both of these things happen at once.

“The future starts to look quite forbidding; a sense of imminent danger starts to replace a feeling of limitless possibility. In these circumstances, a revisionist power may act boldly, even aggressively, to grab what it can before it is too late. The most dangerous trajectory in world politics is a long rise followed by the prospect of a sharp decline.”

So, there you have it; China is in decline, and that’s the problem.

In seeing China’s rise as a threat, the US is undermining globalisation

But before we even think about a third world war, I would dearly like to know who is really in decline or not. Perhaps political scientists can arrive at some clean definitions, reach a consensus and then tell us about it. Well, and pigs might fly.

But let me venture another possibility, combination or permutation, say, both superpowers are in decline. Whatever we mean by “decline”, relative or absolute, hegemonic or not, it’s not an unreasonable presupposition about the state of the two countries. I am sure there is plenty of data out there that would paint a pretty grim picture of both countries.

American democracy? It looks more and more like an oligarchy by the day, the rule by/for/of the rich and special interests. The Chinese economy? Is it capitalist, communist, hybrid or mixed? Who knows what it is these days? Certainly, both systems are showing serious cracks, with their foundational flaws exposed.

So, I ask our wise political scientists: if both superpowers are in decline or have peaked, are they more or less likely to go at each other’s throats? Well, judging by the aforementioned discussions, if both sides are in decline, wouldn’t both be the problem? And that’s the real problem for the rest of the world.