Corona as a conflict catalyst?
Realistic implications in the context of the global Sino-American rivalry
Holger Alisch/Stephan Maninger
Since the end of the 1970ies, the economic rise of China had been one of the constants of international politics. The danger of uninhibited power shifts, however, has been known since the incipiencies of international relations. As early as in the 5th century BC, as was stated by the perhaps first realist of world history, Thucydides, in his relevant standard work, the Peloponnesian War between the two Greek leading powers Athens and Sparta had been caused and triggered by the fear of the Spartan hegemonial power of the inexorable and minatory rise of Athens. The US-American political scientist Graham Allison has revived the immemorial historical certainty that dominating imperial systems only reluctantly yield to their heirs, also in connection with the superpower competition between Washington and Peking. In the face of the massive economical losses of all modern national economies, it is indisputable that the present crisis around the Covid-19 virus at least has the potential of messing up the dominating structure of the international system. In view of the distribution of power resources in the international system, the question appears problematic which of the power poles will be sooner capable of re-establishing its regular productions, limiting both financial and human losses, and taking advantage of possible opening weaknesses of its rivals. Paradoxically, both an abrupt Chinese collapse and the continuation of the relative economic and thus unavoidably political-military increase of the PR China can lead to an aggravation of the latent confrontation with the regional as well as global order led by the USA. Neorealists in the theories of international relations use to watch the power shifts from some kind of „bird’s-eye view“ in order to draw conclusions with regard to the resulting stability or instability and/or to the „balance of power“. The father of neorealism, Kenneth Waltz, considered the liability of the international system to war dependent from the distribution of power resources, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union he believed in only a short hegemonial transitional phase, which undoubtedly had to end in „imperial distension” and the formation of anti-hegemonial countervailing power. On top of all considerations, there is the question to what extent the virus with its already now toweringly economic aftereffects might affect the perspective of a „Chinese Century”. Optimistic approaches on the peacekeeping effect of „complex interdependency” or of „commercial liberalism” promise Chinese interest in maintaining the liberal global order of free trade, but such a point of view misjudges three facts:
1. The PR China is neither an arbitrary nor an ordinary state. It is a one-party dictatorship. As long as the Communist Party of China (CPCh) rules, it will defend itself against any real or ostensive attempt at threatening its dominance. The control of diaspora, propaganda, and of espionage, is only one part of the elaborate repertoire of the „unrestricted warfare” approach practised by the CPCh. Thus, a system change appears unlikely.
2. In the course of history, new powers arose repeatedly. There can, however, be „only one sun in the sky”. Since the beginning of the early modern times (1492), so far there were only two peaceful changeovers, and they were characterized by cultural and political similarity of the particular adversaries. At the end of the 15th century, the Catholic Kingdom of Spain replaced the Catholic Kingdom of Portugal as the West European and Atlantic leading power. Moreover, in the last third of the 19th century as well as the beginning of the 20th century, the liberal and protestant United Kingdom was replaced by the liberal and protestant United States. Nothing comparable can be said about the „arsenal of democracy” nor Cathay.
3. The prognoses of realism have been confirmed again in the present crisis, too. Institutions such as the EU or NATO only play a secondary role. The sovereign national state following its interests remains the central security-political reference value. National security is the most important single interest and the basis for any other objective. Whereas great parts of Western political elites have surrendered to a tragical loss of reality, the CPCh remains aware of its chances and risks. It would, however, be better for Western politics to look at the world again how it is and not how it ought to be; to understand that the Chinese state party not only rejects everything which constitutes our individualistic polity, but apprehends it as a hostile threat of the own position. Thus, the Pacific has ceased to be the „Pacific Ocean”. Fidgety times are about to come.