29 February 2020
US-China relations remain just as tense as it was 20 years ago. Photo: AFP
US-China relations remain just as tense as it was 20 years ago. Photo: AFP

US, China sink deeper into the Thucydides Trap

Twenty years ago on May 8, the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia in Belgrade was struck by five guided bombs dropped by a US bomber, leaving three dead and more than 20 injured.

Then US president Bill Clinton apologized for the bombing, saying it was an accident.

The “May 8 incident”, as it came to be known, sparked a massive anti-US protest in Beijing, with Chinese demonstrators chanting, “Blood for blood!” It sent Sino-US relations to the bottom.

Yet to commemorate the 20th anniversary of that humiliating incident, all Beijing did was hold a low-profile ceremony at the Chinese embassy in Serbia.

Twenty years on, US-China relations remain just as tense.

US President Donald Trump is waging a ferocious trade war against China. Washington is also interfering in China’s domestic affairs over the Taiwan and Hong Kong issues.

Worse, Beijing and Washington are now at odds with each other over a wide range of issues from the South China Sea to the Arctic. The two great powers are almost in a state of full-scale tensions in virtually every corner of the world.

It appears that all it takes is a military “miscalculation” for the currently touch-and-go situation between the United States and China to escalate into an all-out confrontation.

And if that scenario happens, the current Chinese leadership might no longer exercise the same restraint as former president Jiang Zemin did 20 years ago.

Back in 1999, Beijing decided to swallow the humiliation over the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and continue with the talks with Washington because Jiang was bent on making China a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Eventually, China got what it wanted, and in November 1999, the government delegations of both China and the US signed a bilateral agreement on China’s entry into the WTO, thereby marking the beginning of 20 years of rapid economic growth in the mainland.

But now that China is the world’s second-largest economy, Beijing has become a lot more vocal and assertive in global affairs.

If the same “accidental bombing” takes place against any Chinese facilities again today, our Beijing leaders may no longer respond to it as humbly as they did 20 years ago.

The US and China are now getting caught more and more deeply in the Thucydides Trap, and as quite a number of diplomatic experts have pointed out, it may only be a matter of time before the two great powers will go to war with each other.

The question is, is it going to be a cold war or a hot war?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal