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US risks underestimating the power of historical memory in its tussle with China

America has started a Confrontation with China. Indiscriminate attacks on ‘the Chinese’ will provoke a nationalist backlash fuelled by the memory of historical oppression and racism.

US President Donald Trump walks to Marine One in the rain on the South Lawn of the White House on June 11, 2020.

US President Donald Trump walks to Marine One in the rain on the South Lawn of the White House on June 11, 2020.

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The Thucydides Trap is an intellectual trap for the unwary when uncritically applied to China. China is not a rising power; it is a returning power. The psychology is different.

It is essential to recognise that America’s “adversary” is the People’s Republic of China led by the Communist Party of China (CCP), not “the Chinese”.

The millions of people of Chinese descent in the world are not automatically aligned with China.

To refer to the “Chinese” challenge is intellectually flabby and politically indefensible.


The psychology of a returning power is very different from that of a rising power.

Imperial Germany at the beginning of the 20th century sought to elbow its way into the circle of great powers and seize “its place in the sun”.

Ironically, German Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, who coined the phrase, was speaking of Germany’s acquisition of territory in China.

A newly-prosperous China demands to be respected, not lectured by those who oppressed it. Misapprehending the nature of the problem will exacerbate it.

United States President Donald Trump wants a Confrontation with China for domestic reasons.

Mr Trump said that the current Covid-19 outbreak is a worse attack on America than Pearl Harbour and 9/11.

He has said before that trade wars are easy to win. Presumably, he thinks that a race and culture Confrontation will also be easy for America to win. But he underestimates the power of historical memory.

The first time a foreign power complained about China’s trade imbalance there was war. In 1839-42 Britain forced China to import opium to correct its trade surplus.

China had to open up several ports to foreigners, who were exempt from Chinese laws — the first of the unequal treaties inflicted on China.


2019 marked the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as the May Fourth Movement.

China sent over 100,000 workers to France during World War I, hoping to gain a place at the victors’ table and rid itself of the unequal treaties. At Versailles, China was betrayed.

The German concession in Shandong was handed over to the Japanese, instead of being given back to China.

On May 4, 1919, protests began breaking out all over China at this shabby treatment.

US Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger invoked the May 4 movement in a speech last month seeking to undermine the CCP.

This is ironic, since disenchantment with the Western democracies caused China to turn to autocratic countries like the Soviet Union and even defeated Germany for models. This led ultimately to the foundation of the CCP.

The memory of racial injustice festers. The unequal treaties resulted in Western enclaves ruled by foreigners, where Chinese were treated as inferiors in their own country.

A Japanese proposal for an article on racial equality in the Treaty of Versailles was rejected, by America among others.


Now Mr Trump is using this anti-China feeling as a weapon in his re-election campaign.

What better way to rally his base than by focusing attention on a foreign enemy, with a different skin colour and culture? What started as a trade war is turning into a race and culture war.

Using race as an electoral weapon is a tactic as indiscriminate as carpet bombing. Anyone who looks Chinese is an enemy.

Korean-American actor John Cho wrote that east Asians now face rising racism in America. The organisation Act to Change noted that “the Cvoid-19 pandemic has sparked rising numbers of anti-Asian hate crimes”.

Racism is driven by two contradictory impulses.

First, a sense of superiority.

White Americans felt that other races were inferior, rejecting the racial equality clause at Versailles.

It underpins the delusion that America is a shining light for the world. The obvious failures in coping with Covid-19 undermine America’s claim to moral leadership. Blaming China for the outbreak is the response, shifting culpability to a foreign foe.

The second, contradictory, impulse is a sense of inferiority: That Americans cannot compete against the yellow hordes. This underpinned the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

The economic rise of China again feeds this hysteria. The response is to accuse the “Chinese” of unfair trading.

Mr Trump’s trade war is a result of this insecurity.

There is a crucial difference between relative and absolute decline. American economic dominance after 1945 is an aberration, largely the result of Europe’s self-destruction in the Second Thirty Years War from 1914-45.


For most of history China has been the largest economic power in the world.

If China grows economically the relative position of America will decline but this does not necessarily involve an absolute decline. The only way to prevent relative decline is to stop China from progressing. This is not just unfeasible but downright immoral.

The Confrontation will be played out in third countries. It is not a foregone conclusion that America will win this struggle for hearts and minds.

China has not tried to export revolution since the end of Maoism. It does not seek to change other countries in its own image.

America does this constantly, preaching the superiority of its values; a claim that rings hollow given the poisonous partisanship of American politics. Moralising is all the more hypocritical when America is mired in a societal morass.

Let those without sin cast the first stone; those who live in glass houses should be very careful about doing so.

Member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are not naturally pro-China.

Yet Asians also take pride in the achievements of a non-Caucasian power. When China put its first Taikonaut in space the Asean ambassadors in Brussels congratulated the Chinese ambassador. This was not just a matter of diplomatic niceties.


American bullying pushes positive attitudes towards negativity.

Late last year, the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute asked over 1,300 Asean nationals in both the public and private sector which of the two rivals Asean should align itself with if forced to choose between China and America.

A majority of the respondents in seven out of 10 Asean countries picked China.

Yet historical memory can be positive too. On Sept 14, 2001, over 200,000 Germans gathered before the Brandenburg Gate in solidarity with America after 9/11.

The presentation of credentials for the American ambassador Dan Coats was expedited so he could be there.

Many remembered the “Raisin Bombers” which were the lifeline of West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade. Generosity is what made America great, not “America first and damn the rest of the world” selfishness.

China behaves badly in many ways, but confronting it directly will not improve matters. There will be a nationalist backlash, fuelled by the memory of historical oppression and racial prejudice.

America can impede China’s progress but not stop it. A Confrontation will consume resources better utilised in making the lives of Americans better.

America needs all the resources it can muster after the devastation of Mr Trump’s botched Covid-19 response.

An American official said that America knows how to “spend an adversary into oblivion”.

A story is told of Croesus, the last king of Lydia and renowned for his wealth. Croesus wanted to attack Persia.

He consulted the Oracle at Delphi, which declared that “if Croesus goes to war with Persia, he will destroy a great empire”.

Croesus confidently went to war and was soundly beaten. The great empire he destroyed was his own.

Perhaps America might learn from history.


Walter Woon is professor and chairman, Society for International Law Singapore and was previously Singapore’s ambassador to Germany and the European Union. He is also author of The Asean Charter: A Commentary. This piece first appeared in RSIS Commentary of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

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USA China Covid-19 coronavirus ASEAN Donald Trump

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