Oct 22, 2018

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1 big thing: U.S., China, miscalculation, war

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Glued to a 2,400-year-old script, the U.S. and China seem to be on the same war-bound path that great powers have taken since Sparta fought upstart Athens.

  • The U.S. has slapped increasing tariffs on Beijing, cordoned off U.S. tech, and jailed a Chinese spy.
  • Beijing has continued to build its military footprint in the disputed South China Sea, demanded tech secrets from Western companies, and more.

Driving the news: A year ago, Harvard professor Graham Allison ignited a global debate by suggesting that the U.S. and China are not acting out, or even necessarily making their own decisions. Instead, he said that with their brinksmanship, they are succumbing to an inexorable, invisible force prodding them to almost inevitable war.

Allison calls this the "Thucydides Trap," after the Athenian general-historian. For five centuries, he wrote in "Destined for War" (now out in paperback), war has almost always resulted when a rising nation challenges the existing great power.

  • Thus if history holds, the U.S. and China appeared headed toward war.
  • Over the weekend, I asked him for an update — specifically whether the danger of the two going to war seems to have risen.
  • "Yes," he responded. The chance of war is still less than 50%, but "is real — and much more likely than is generally recognized."
"If Thucydides were watching, he’d likely say all parties almost seem to be competing to show who can best exemplify the role as rising power, ruling power, and provocateur."
Graham Allison

The big picture: The elevated U.S.-China tension is a primary thread running through this period of unusual geopolitical turbulence, in which a populist wave is challenging institutions and accords that make up the "liberal world order."

In an Oct. 4 speech, Vice President Pence all but declared a new cold war, accusing China of interference in the midterms in a campaign for regime change — to elect "a different American president."

  • Cyber experts tell Axios that they have detected no Chinese meddling in the midterms so far.
  • But Pence's invoking of the claim underlines the administration's belief that China is the main strategic threat to the U.S.

Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has rejected Allison's theory:

  • In 2015, when Allison was first floating the idea in journals, Xi suggested that nations could blunder into war but that there is no force driving them that direction.
  • "There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world," Xi said. "But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves."

Richard McGregor, a long-time China hand with the Lowy Institute, said that he finds more current relevance in another Thucydides maxim — that while it is dangerous to build an empire, it is even more dangerous to renounce it.

  • "That’s where we are in Asia," McGregor tells Axios, "with many regional countries worried about America’s commitment to the region; and equally fearful of a China which is not only in no position to take the U.S.’s place, but is not trusted to do so either."

The bottom line: Almost no one expects trade alone to lead to armed U.S.-Chinese conflict. Rather, the biggest danger, Allison says, is that — as the slaying of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered WWI — the two countries will be pulled into conflict by miscalculation involving a third party, such as Taiwan.

  • "What happens is that a third-party provocation, an accident, becomes a trigger to which one of the two feels obliged to respond," he said, "and they find themselves in a war that neither wanted."
2. The Chinese decoupling problem

Manufacturing in China. Photo: AFP/Getty

President Trump appears to be trying to decouple the American and Chinese economies, but he may be largely too late.

What's happening: China's push to own the Big Tech future, and make what it needs at home — what Xi calls "Made in China 2025" — is in part an effort to inoculate itself from Western politics. The next time the U.S. decides to sanction Chinese tech, the impact will be cushioned.

  • For different reasons, Trump is trying to do the same thing. As Pence put it in his speech earlier this month, cited above, the administration would like American companies to make their stuff outside of China.
  • Some U.S. companies are trying to diversify production to other low-cost countries.
  • But, after decades of economic integration with China, most American companies are largely dug in where they are, with supply lines and markets organized around their presence there.

What they're saying: The greater problem will arise if Trump tries to bring U.S. allies in Asia into the same decoupling policy. "To the extent that the security of the United States is vulnerable to others’ choices of technology, the Trump administration may well force these countries and multinationals to make a choice between the United States and China," said Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

  • That could be a mistake, says McGregor, the Lowy Institute fellow.
  • The economies of Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan are far more integrated than is the U.S. "If Washington forces them to choose, many of them might choose China, as that’s where they see their economic future," McGregor says.
  • Parag Khanna, author of the forthcoming, "The Future is Asian," said Trump's trade war in fact is entrenching China further in other Asian economies. The integration of the rest of Asia "with China is accelerating," he tells Axios, "and will accelerate more because China will divert the trade it loses with the U.S. to these same countries."
3. A vulnerable MBS

The crown prince. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty

At minimum, the future of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seems likely to be a significant weakening of his signature policy — a reform of the Kingdom's economy. And he will lose many of his hard-won friendships abroad, a casualty of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the widespread suspicion that he either ordered or was aware it would occur.

What to watch: Now the question is whether the Crown Prince maintains his hold on the throne as successor to his father, King Salman. That may hinge on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a regional antagonist, who says that he will reveal everything his country knows about the murder tomorrow.

  • If Erdogan does so, and it includes tapes that Turkish officials say they possess of what they call a 7-minute murder, MBS — as Prince Mohammad is known — may find his sure grip much-weakened.
  • Until last year, it was assumed that then-Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef had an unassailable hold on the succession, notes Helima Croft, a former CIA officer and an expert on Saudi Arabia with RBC Capital Markets.
  • But then Salman sidelined Nayef for his son.

"If the crisis deepens (for example if the alleged audio tapes comes out), then his internal position may grow more precarious," Croft tells Axios. "The internal workings of the house of Saud are very opaque, but the family seems to place a high premium on self preservation."  

  • An MBS exit is "very plausible if Trump is forced to suspend arms sales because of congressional and public pressure and U.S. business also comes under continuing public pressure or thinks the risks are too high," the Atlantic Council's Mathew Burrows tells Axios. "There are a lot of other princes who could take over."

Be smart: Erdogan might release the tapes if, after a long crackdown against journalists, he likes finally being seen internationally as a good guy.

Others speaking with Axios on MBS's fate:

  • Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group: "I’d be surprised if Salman decides to cut him, but that doesn’t necessarily protect him from internal fighting over the coming months, especially if the kingdom externally isn’t faring well." 
  • Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs: "The King put MBS in charge of reforming the intelligence services in the wake of the Khashoggi killing. And everything Riyadh has done up to this point is to make sure the killing isn’t traced back to the Crown Prince."
4. Worthy of your time

Photo: Jeff Greenberg/UIG/Getty

In AI, a job-seeker's market (Ann Saphir — Reuters)

Deep Fakes test (Autodesk)

Back to the movies (Marisa Fernandez — Axios)

The Khashoggis across the Middle East (Robin Wright — New Yorker)

The world in 2045 (Popular Mechanics)

5. 1 time-saving thing: Time off to vote

Voters in Miami, 2016. Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

In elections past, some Americans have waited 7 hours to vote, even when they chose to go to the polls early or used a precious vacation day. But change may be on the way, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.

Driving the news: This year, 44% of U.S. companies are offering employees paid time off to vote. That's a record high and up from 37% in 2016, per the Society for Human Resources Management.

Between the lines: Amid a backlash against Big Tech and peak mistrust in government — on both the left and the right — companies are under pressure to step up and demonstrate political leadership. This is one way they are doing so.

  • Lyft has instituted a "no meeting" policy on Election Day and has in-house booths for voter registration, reports Bloomberg. The company has also sent out mass emails as a reminder to register.
  • Tinder is circulating voter turnout stats and information on how to register, per USA Today. Users can also learn about political candidates by swiping left or right, the same way they would on a potential love interest.
  • Uber is offering free rides to the polls on Nov. 6.