When trade leads to war
China and Russia show the limits of interdependence, writes Senior Fellow Dale Copeland
Over the past year, the United States has been forced to contemplate a possibility that many have regarded as almost unthinkable since the Cold War: a major military conflict with another great power. For the first time in decades, Moscow has been rattling its missiles to warn Washington about its support for Ukraine. And in early August, following U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Beijing dramatically escalated its threat of military action over the island.
Almost as startling as the threats themselves are what they seem to suggest about the limits of economic interdependence as a force for peace. Both China and Russia rely to an extraordinary degree on trade for economic growth and to secure their positions on the world stage. China has managed to quintuple its GDP over the last two decades in large measure through the export of manufactured products; more than 50 percent of Russia’s government revenue comes from the export of oil and gas. According to an influential strand of thinking in international relations theory, these crucial economic ties should put a much higher price on military conflict for both countries. Yet at least from appearances, neither power seems restrained by the potential loss of such trade.
The picture is not as simple as it looks, however. For one thing, under certain circumstances, trade relationships may serve as an inducement rather than a deterrent to war. Moreover, the assertion of military power or even the threat of adversarial confrontation does not always correlate with a rupture in economic relations. As the contrasting cases of China and Russia have demonstrated over the past year, economic ties often play out in ways that defy expectations. For those who assume that commerce can help prevent great-power conflict, it is critical to examine the complex ways that economic forces have actually shaped strategic thinking in Beijing and Moscow.