By Simon Bond

This is the biggest player in the history of the world.” So stated Lee Kuan Yew to Graham Allison, Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Graham Allison has written a deeply-insightful book entitled Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Thucydides showed how “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this installed in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Henry Kissinger is quoted on the dust-jacket of the book as follows: “I can only hope that the US-China relationship becomes the fifth case to resolve itself peacefully, rather than the thirteenth to result in war.” Few Americans appreciate how fast and far China has advanced.

We quote as follows: In my national security course at Harvard, my lecture on China begins with a quiz. The first question asks students to compare China and the United States in 1980 with their current rankings. Repeatedly, students are shocked at what they see. One glance at the chart with numbers from 2015 should explain why. In a single generation, a nation that did not appear on any of the international league tables has vaulted into the top spot.

In 1980, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) was less than $300 billion; by 2015, it was $11 trillion making it the world’s second-largest economy by market exchange rates. In 1980, China’s trade with the outside world amounted to less than $40 billion; by 2015, it had increased one hundredfold, to $4 trillion. For every two-year period since 2008, the increment of growth in China’s GDP has been larger than the entire economy of India. Even at its lowest growth rate in 2015, China’s economy created a Greece every sixteen weeks and an Israel every twenty-five weeks. During its own remarkable progress between 1860 and 1913, when the United States shocked European capitals by surpassing Great Britain to become the world’s largest economy, America’s annual growth averaged 4 percent.

China's "One Belt One Road" strategy continues to enlarge by the day. 


Since 1980, China’s economy has grown at 10 percent a year. According to the Rule of 72—divide 72 by the annual growth rate to determine when an economy or investment will double the Chinese economy has doubled every seven years. Most students are stunned to learn that on most indicators, China has already surpassed the United States. As the largest producer of ships, steel, aluminum, furniture, clothing, textiles, cell phones, and computers, China has become the manufacturing powerhouse of the world. Students are even more surprised to discover that China has also become the world’s largest consumer of most products. America was the birthplace of the automobile, but China is now both the largest automaker and the largest auto market.

Chinese consumers bought twenty million cars in 2015, three million more than were sold in the U.S. China also has the world’s largest number of Internet users. China imported more oil, consumed more energy, and installed more solar power than any other nation. Perhaps most devastatingly for America’s self conception, in 2016 as it has since the 2008 worldwide financial crisis. China continued to serve as the primary engine of global economic growth.

Lee Kuan Yew saw the [balance of power] as a fundamental building block in understanding relations among nations. But, he explained, “in the old concept, balance of power meant largely military power. In today’s terms, it is a combination of economic and military, and I think the economic outweighs the military.”

China primarily conducts foreign policy through economics because, to put it bluntly, it can. It is currently the largest trading partner for over 130 countries including all the major Asian economies. Its trade with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations accounted for 15 percent of ASEAN’s total trade in 2015, while the US accounted for only 9 percent.

This imbalance will accelerate in the absence of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as China moves quickly to establish its own equivalent in an emerging co-prosperity area. “History,” Kissinger observed in his first book, “is the memory of states.” This memory bears heavily on future national decisions. Both the American and Chinese militaries acknowledge that the US has lost, or at least failed to win, four of the five major wars it has entered since World War II. (Korea was at best a draw, Vietnam a loss, and Iraq and Afghanistan unlikely to turn out well. Only President George H. W. Bush’s war in 1991 to force Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to retreat from Kuwait counts as a clear win.) Reflecting on that record, former secretary of defense Robert Gates stated the obvious: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

In recent decades, Americans and the policymakers sending American troops to war have also displayed an ever-lower tolerance for losing American lives in combat. The impact of this casualty aversion is severe: military planners now rule out entire categories of operations because of their risk to soldiers, while politicians speak less and less of victory and more and more of protecting troops.

The timing of the elevation of US Cyber Security to the same level of Strategic Command is by no means a coincidence.