SHOULD Malaysians brace themselves for a US-China war? Rising tensions between the US and China have generated renewed discourses surrounding the “Thucydides Trap” phenomenon.
The notion describes a scenario of rivalry between an established power and a rising one, that often ends in war. Similar to the US and China today. President Xi Jinping, in 2013, told a group of western visitors that the Thucydides Trap must be avoided by “working together”.
In 2018, the discourse on this had increased substantially within academic and policy circles. The focus is on rising threats to global security, resulting from US-China tensions. But how “real” are these threats?
These tensions are rooted in both nations’ vested interests in the global economy geopolitical dynamics.
The current trade turbulence is predominantly Trump-driven, whereas the deeper tension is structural. The structural changes initiated mainly by China are not perceived as peaceful.
This includes more control over the military, increased defence spending, the militarisation of the South China Sea, a crackdown on internal dissent (e.g. Xinjian and the Uighurs), and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia, are economically dependent on China and Japan.
The realignment of great power relations in the Indo-Pacific is causing geopolitical uncertainty in Southeast Asia.
However, this does not mean Southeast Asia or ASEAN is bracing for conventional war between the US and China.
The perception is different. The perceived scenario in the next few years to come will be in the form of economic stressors instigated by the US-China trade war.
For Malaysia, there are worries, but not of the magnitude painted by Trump and his macho allies.
China’s infrastructure financing through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is of concern. Even though it can improve domestic and regional connectivity, Malaysia’s domestic economic situation compelled Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad to reconsider Chinese-backed projects.
The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and the natural gas pipeline project in Sabah are two major projects.
Mahathir couched the matter around the massive financial scandal (1MDB) that has left Malaysia’s economy in shambles.
Although Mahathir said that the infrastructure deals made between China and his predecessor were lopsided, in favour of China, he stated convincingly that even China would not want to see Malaysia as bankrupt.
Despite the economic tensions between Beijing and Putrajaya, this does not mean that Malaysia envisages a militarily-aggressive China. Most in Southeast Asia do not believe China’s intention is to militarily quash the Southeast Asian region.
Rather than taking an aggressive stand against China, the bigger task is to manage the hegemonic rhetoric emanating from the west, led by the US.
Therefore, should Malaysia buy into the Thucydides Trap rhetoric? There are civilisation-specific approaches to conceptualise strategy and the origin of war. European political history has demonstrated that democracy, sovereignty and human rights are values that wars were fought over. In the context of 21st century geopolitics, the Thucydides Trap discourse posits that war is initiated by the “resident” power (US), out of fear of a “rising power” (China).
This is contrary to what is recorded in Thucydides’ expose. The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) by Thucydides clearly states that the Spartans (the resident power) did not want war against the rising Athenians.
Instead, the Corinthians, who were rivals of Athens, stirred up the Spartans into bellicosity. Even Sparta’s king Archidamus was himself against war, but his people became too riled up.
Eventually, Athens was struck with the plague which killed their key leader, Pericles. The Athenians were in disarray, and Sparta won the war.
The independent states of Hellas (akin to the independent nations of ASEAN) lived in peace. Their leaders formed a web of friendship, just as ASEAN nations do.
When Pericles, the key peace-maker, died, peace was threatened. Without a leader, the Athenians stirred up unrest which eventually imploded on Athens.
Even though Sparta eventually won, there was no “trap”. The resident power, Sparta, did not initiate war. The rising power, Athens (which was eventually subdued), was in fact, the instigator of the war.
It is erroneous to transport this scenario to the current global security context of US-China tensions.
The Thucydides Trap discourse is more of an academic exercise based on an imagined reality. It is a strategic framework that has been cleverly adapted to describe current geopolitical, geoeconomic and geostrategic manoeuvres.
We must look at China’s rise independently of the “trap” lens. This alternate view should dispel notions that a war between the US and China is inevitable.
It should also dispel fears that the Southeast Asian region would be subdued by an inevitable hegemonic conflict. History is our convincing educator.
In 20th century history, resident powers did not subdue rising powers. In 1904, Japan was a rising power while Russia was the established power.
Russia did not preempt Japan. Japan instead launched a surprise attack on Russia. In 1941 Japan again was the rising power.
She launched an attack on US’s Pearl Harbor, not the other way around. Similarly, in the 1930s, Germany was the rising power. France, Russia and England did not move against it.
US as the resident power would like the global security community to think that a rising China is a threat, to be subdued at all costs.
The dynamics of American foreign policy demonstrates US provocative rhetoric against the “rising China” phenomenon.
This demonstrates imperialistic state behaviour which is unacceptable to East and Southeast Asian nations. In reality, the obvious threat exists in the economic sphere rather than in the military domain.
The current trade war between the two big powers point to the unlikelihood of any nation being caught in a Thucydides Trap.
Both powers have not been on a conventional war path so far. Rather, rhetorical statements alluding to it is the real strategy, created to deflect from the damaging effects of economic manipulation.
For Malaysia, and many in Southeast Asia, China will continue to be engaged economically, and as a military presence. China is not viewed as a rising threat, to be feared and avoided. Rather, she is to be engaged as much as possible.
But there are conditions to this engagement, with the primary goals of safeguarding small-state sovereignty and national interest.
Nevertheless, Malaysia must take heed of her defence relations and diplomacy. To be effective, Malaysia must be credibly backed by its defence capability.
As a small nation Malaysia needs to have good defence relations with credible and reliable regional military powers.
Future procurement should be done intelligently and honestly. The practice of “keeping up with the Jones’s” must stop, i.e. purchasing state-of-the-art equipment because it is the “thing to do”.
We should not procure expensive Scorpene-class submarines, for instance, only to leave them as sitting ducks in our docks.
Each hunk of metal costs about US$450 million. It is sinfully wasteful if we do not train our navy personnel to be competent at operating them.
It is at this juncture that we must address the notion of a Malaysian Defence White Paper. Why we do not have one to date is puzzling, but nevertheless, it is a welcomed proposition.
Earlier this year, Defence Minister, Mohamad Sabu said that the ministry is expected to table it to Parliament, this September. Sabu was quoted in a local daily as saying “it is necessary to further strengthen the country’s military system”.
He also said “it is formulated by taking into account the short-term and long-term aspects of the nation’s defence policy, apart from providing a comprehensive explanation to the people”.
This comes at an opportune time, surrounding a global hype about a “rising China” and the false notion of a potential global military conflict between two world powers.
Thucydides Trap or not, Malaysians can decide for themselves how tax payers money would be spent on defence procurement.
Defence spending is particularly vulnerable to corruption mainly because it is easy to convince all and sundry that “we need expensive toys to safeguard national security”.
However, Malaysians do not want a repeat of the shady Scorpene purchases, which, to date, are still unresolved. With the white paper, the public will be empowered to question opulent spending on defence equipment and training. This is another step in the right direction, to curb corruption.
* Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas adalah pakar geopolitik di Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) dan ahli kumpulan G25. ** The views expressed here are strictly of the authors' and do not necessarily reflect Astro AWANI's.