Roberto Bonfatti and Kevin H. O'Rourke
Existing theories of pre-emptive war typically predict that the established power may choose to launch a war on a rising power. Applied to the case of industrial catching up, this model seems to have clear implications. Since military power goes hand in hand with industrial development, an established industrial leader should be the one to consider launching a pre-emptive war against a catching-up, late industrializing, follower.
In this publication, forthcoming in the Economic Journal, Roberto Bonfatti and Kevin O'Rourke show that, if international trade is taken into account, the implications of the model can be quite different. Industrial catching up is a double-edged sword for the follower: while it makes its military apparatus potentially more powerful, rapid growth and structural change also makes it more dependent on imported raw materials. If the leader has the capacity to blockade these imports in case of war, the follower may actually become militarily weaker, rather than stronger, over time. In this case, it may be the follower who launches a pre-emptive war on the leader, or on a resource-rich region, and not the other way around. They argue that this can explain why it was Japan who attacked the United States in 1941, and not the other way around, or Hitler's decision to attack Eastern Europe. Applied to US-Chinese relations today, these considerations suggest that as long as the US retains control over maritime choke points, it may be China, rather than the United States, that fears becoming more vulnerable over time. In that context, Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, while potentially dangerous, may not be so surprising.
Bonfatti, Roberto and Kevin H. O'Rourke. "Growth, Import Dependence, and War", forthcoming, Economic Journal. Also featured on Voxeu, May 26 2017.
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Posted on Monday 5th June 2017