The Big Question: Edward Carr argues that conflict between China and America is the worst that could happen, dragging billions into poverty...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
Adam Smith, the great thinker of the Scottish enlightenment, once speculated on how a European “man of humanity” would treat the news that China had been swallowed by an earthquake. He would express his sorrow, offer some judicious remarks on the damage to trade and reflect on the precariousness of human existence, before turning back to his own affairs. “If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow,” Smith went on, “he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.”
When you think about the worst that could happen, you should resist this temptation to make yourself the centre of the world. Turn away from the injustice of being falsely condemned or the despair of being utterly alone. Quash the thought of losing a child. On this melancholy subject, at least, I am with Smith rather than William Blake: instead of trying to hold infinity in the palm of your hand, broaden your gaze and contemplate a tragedy for the whole of humanity.
In the next few decades the prime candidate is war between China and America. As the superpowers strive for economic, political and technological supremacy, so their mutual mistrust will become more explicit. By the end of 2020 China’s military spending will probably be double what it is today and the United States, which is pressed for cash, will have “pivoted” more of its forces into Asia.
The tripwire for outright conflict might be trivial: a scrap between China and one of its neighbours over some islands, or a miscalculation as American warships sail up to the 12-mile limit that defines Chinese territorial waters. But when the dominant male and the pretender square up, everything about them is at stake. Just as two conflagrations burnt the heart out of the 20th century, so a war between the leading powers of the 21st could set off an orgy of destruction.
The shadow of nuclear devastation is one reason to be fearful. But even if we avoided that last, hideous step, the cost would be immense. That is partly
because today’s conventional weapons are so potent, but also because China and America depend on each other in ways that Russia and America never did. The flow of goods to our shops would dry up, as globalisation failed. The financial system might collapse, because America could not borrow from China, and China would have nowhere to put its savings. Cyber-warriors might wreck communications and infrastructure. Collaboration on trade, science and action on climate change would be swept aside. Global economic depression would drag billions back into poverty.
America and China have every reason to avoid such a catastrophe. China’s leaders nurse no particular territorial ambitions and they have their hands full at home. You might conclude therefore that the superpowers will not fight – that they have too much to lose from war and too much to gain from peace. But that is just what was said about Europe in 1909.
What do you think is the worst that could happen? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Robert Guest on famine, Irving Wardle on cultural erosion, Clive Stafford Smith on fear, Kah Walla on Africa unfulfilled and Ann Wroe on our imagination.
Edward Carr is the editorial director of Intelligent Life and foreign editor of The Economist
Picture: War, from Dürer's woodcut "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", 1498 (Scala)