Are China and the United States sliding farther down the slippery slope towards war, albeit a limited one, probably in the South China Sea ? The sharp deterioration of Sino-American relations in recent months would suggest that they are – unless halted by the exercise of exceptional political wisdom and statesmanship on both sides. The latest round of high-level talks in Honolulu offered little hope for optimism. It was described as “constructive”, which, in diplomatic-speak, means both sides stuck to their guns. This is hardly surprising as strategic considerations each considers imperative are driving the two nations towards a head-on collision. Where once the hope was that it was just the grandstanding Trump administration that wanted to pick a fight with China for short-term electoral gains, it has now become increasingly clear that the rift is deep-seated and structural. It will not go away even if Donald Trump does after the November presidential election. The American antipathy towards China is deep and bipartisan. What China holds as fundamental to its security and salvation, and thus non-negotiable, will always be regarded by the US as a direct challenge by a rising power to its dominance of the global order. And so the stage is set for push and push-back. Those familiar with the book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? , by Harvard scholar Graham Allison, will recognise that this is precisely its theme. Too abstract? Then read the Crowe Memorandum, which should point to what exactly the US finds unacceptable about China. This memo is widely described as a gem in the annals of diplomacy. Many historians say it puts the finger on why Britain, the reigning power in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, went all out to put down a rising Germany, thus precipitating World War I. But, first, Thucydides. He was the Greek historian who documented the war between Sparta and Athens nearly 2,500 years ago. The trap is the metaphor used ever since to describe the inevitability of a rising power coming to blows with an existing one that feels its dominance threatened by the former. Professor Allison had led a study at the Harvard Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs into conflicts between reigning and rising powers over the past 500 years. In 12 of 16 cases, the result was war. “When the parties avoided war, it required huge, painful adjustments in attitudes and actions on the part not just of the challenger but also the challenged,” he wrote in an essay for The Atlantic magazine on September 24, 2015. China-US tensions could be worse than the Cold War, academic says He went on to say that while war was not inevitable, escaping Thucydides’ Trap required tremendous effort. And then he quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping as having said during a visit to Seattle just days earlier: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides’ Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.” Given the structural contradictions that must cause contending powers to rub against each other, miscalculations are hard to avoid. This was the case in the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC. As Thucydides wrote, there was Athens, the rising city state with its growing sense of entitlement, self importance and confidence, memories of past injustices and a desire for recognition befitting its status as a rising power. That is China today. And on the other side, Sparta, the established power, with its fears, insecurity and resentment towards Athens for being an ingrate – it was the order which Sparta had established that enabled it to flourish – and a determination to defend the status quo. The US is today’s Sparta. It does not matter that China has repeatedly denied that it wants to supplant the US, and has been at pains to assure the world, over and over again, that its focus is on improving the lives of its 1.4 billion people, not lording it over other nations. Indeed President Xi told a gathering of the American elite during that same 2015 Seattle visit that no matter how developed China became, it “will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion”. His Foreign Minister Wang Yi was even more pointed recently. He told a press conference at the end of a meeting of the National People’s Congress on May 24 this year: “China has no intention to change, much less replace, the US.” China … insists that it has a right to ensure that its maritime lifeline cannot be choked off by hostile forces. But this cuts no ice with the Americans. Alas, declarations of good intentions carry little weight when it comes to great power rivalry. The history of Germany and Britain at the beginning of the 20th century offers an object lesson. In 1906, King Edward VII of Britain reportedly asked his government why it was turning hostile towards his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany when the latter had professed at every turn his fondness for the British. The answer came in a long memo written by senior Foreign Office official Eyre Crowe and delivered on New Year’s Day in 1907. In his book, On China , former US secretary of state Dr Henry Kissinger summarised, on page 519, the memo thus: “Crowe concluded that it made no difference what goal Germany avowed.” When Pompeo met Yang: what the US really wanted Germany was at the time rapidly building up its navy. Kissinger wrote that in Crowe’s assessment, once Germany achieved naval supremacy, that in itself, regardless of its intentions, would be an objective threat to Britain and “incompatible with the existence of the British Empire”. In today’s context, what the Crowe Memorandum means is that China can scream till it is hoarse that it does not want to replace the US, but when the perception is that it has the capabilities to do so, then it must be subdued. As Kissinger acknowledged a page later in his book, the Crowe school of analysis is widely held on both sides of the Pacific, though he was quick to point out that he had a different view. He thought both could “co-evolve” as both economic partners and competitors in a “Pacific Community”. So for China, for too long a continental land power, investing heavily in its naval capabilities to deny free rein to the US Seventh Fleet in the Yellow, East China and South China Seas poses a threat to Pax Americana. China, which cannot forget how its lack of a navy allowed the British to sail up and down its coastline and attack cities at will in the First Opium War (1839-1842), insists that it has a right to ensure that its maritime lifeline cannot be choked off by hostile forces. But this cuts no ice with the Americans, who hold that they must have the freedom to sail right up to China’s doorsteps, but will not let foreign naval vessels do likewise off its shores. The other flashpoint is China’s lead in 5G , artificial intelligence applications and other forms of cutting edge technology. The US simply cannot countenance letting that continue, or worse, widen. William Barr says US businesses ‘part of problem’ in tech war with China In a keynote address at the US Department of Justice’s China Initiative Conference on February 6, Attorney General William Barr said: “Make no mistake about it – China’s current technological thrusts pose an unprecedented challenge to the US. The stakes for the US could not be higher.” Zeroing in on 5G, which would power the next industrial revolution, he warned: “If China establishes sole dominance over 5G, it will be able to dominate the opportunities arising from a stunning range of emerging technologies that will be dependent on, and interwoven with, the 5G platform. “From a national security standpoint, if the industrial internet becomes dependent on Chinese technology, China would have the ability to shut countries off from technology and equipment upon which their consumers and industry depend.” And the punchline: “The power the US has today to use economic sanctions would pale by comparison to the unprecedented economic leverage we would be surrendering into the hands of China.” So there it is, as open an admission as any that the US will not brook any usurping of its power to bend others to its will. Which explains why the Trump administration is so hell-bent on destroying Huawei . Will China let that happen without a fight – figuratively and literally? Not likely.