The “Thucydides trap” is where a rising nation-state – for Thucydides it was Athens – must eventually have a violent confrontation with the existing dominant nation-state – Sparta in his time. It is a zero-sum game where there can be only one dominant nation-state as the eventual winner – and it is usually assumed to be the rising nation-state outdoing the dominant nation-state.
Today, many “experts” (and I have great disdain for self-proclaimed experts) believe this is the circumstance between the US and China. We are headed toward violent confrontation where there can be only one winner. I read the book by Thucydides about the conflict between Athens and Sparta (I cannot be dispassionate here about that outcome because my family is from Sparta on my father’s side). But I fundamentally disagree with Thucydides’s historical descriptions being used as analysis by anyone to describe global events, especially those between the US and China.
We are rapidly approaching a zero-interest rate world. Interest rates are being driven to zero (or below zero in many cases) as a first-line tool for central banks to generate economic activity in the face of the dramatic negative impact of the pandemic, as well as existing and lingering economic fallout. This toolbox will be empty soon, and the only remaining weapon will be fiscal policy. Among other things, fiscal policy and domestic financial markets will have an overwhelming influence on global currencies. Capital flows will dramatically impact currency volatility as capital moves to more attractive countries with more liquid and robust asset markets.
A global economic and political chess game is on between the United States and China. There are many moves, defensive and offensive strategies, short- and long-term gains, but, unlike chess, mutual victory is possible. But only if the U.S. and China understand each piece, all the potential moves, what can be sacrificed, and what victory really looks like. But this does not appear to be happening. Instead of working for mutual benefit, regardless of fundamental cultural and political differences, we are now drawing bright lines demarking battle zones. The result will be economic and technical inefficiency and degradation in the quality of life, safety, and prosperity for everyone.
Chinese economic policies and motivations since 2008 not only emphasize growth and sustainability of state-owned enterprises but, a critical but much less well-appreciated dimension is the Chinese government’s emphasis on stability. No economic policy in China will ignore this, and the high value placed on stability pervades all the current trade talks with the United States.
While it may seem tempting to target attractive market sectors and provide government-backed capital and direction, this typically does not end well. The efficient allocation of capital, demanding an appropriate return for given risks, is something private markets do extremely well. A handful of bureaucrats cannot match the collective wisdom of the capital markets, no matter how attractive the target.
WeChat has become the ubiquitous, full-service platform for communication and commerce in China. Essentially, the company has taken the mobile Internet and made it their own. The WeChat internet has a lot to admire — and emulate. While the United States sees big tech as a colossus that needs to be knocked down, the Chinese government saw tech companies as economic engines to be harnessed. They were right.