When the infamous British smuggler Robert Jenkins sailed past Jamaica in April of 1731, he probably thought he was home free.
Jenkins had a ship full of contraband which he had picked up in the West Indies, and he was heading back to England to sell his goods in London’s premium markets.
But Jenkins wasn’t transporting drugs or alcohol, or even anything especially exotic. His ‘contraband’ was sugar. Big deal.
The West Indies at the time, though, were mainly under Spanish control. And Spain insisted that no one could export sugar from their territory without their express approval, along with paying heavy taxes and fees.
Most traders didn’t care. By 1731, Spain was a declining power. Everyone knew it. The once-dominant Spanish Empire had been vanquished by military defeat, political incompetence, succession crises, internal rebellion, and more, and it had become a hollowed out shell of its former self.
So even though it was technically illegal to export sugar from Spanish lands, British privateers and smugglers routinely thumbed their noses at the rules. After all, not only was Spain a declining power, but Britain was a rising power… so the Brits felt emboldened.
But luck was not on Jenkins’s side on that fateful day in April 1731. Somewhere off the coast of Cuba, his ship Rebecca was intercepted by a Spanish patrol boat named La Isabela.
Jenkins knew that his small vessel was outclassed, so he dropped anchor and permitted the Spanish to board his ship.
They quickly found the sugar… and we can only imagine Jenkins responding with a shrug of the shoulders and claiming “I have no idea how that got there.”
Whatever his response, the Spaniards were unimpressed. So they tied Jenkins to a mast and interrogated him for a while, until the Spanish commander finally drew his saber and sliced off Jenkins’ left ear.
Jenkins was then let go, and he hastily made his way back to London where he protested directly to King George II himself. There are even stories (though uncorroborated) that Jenkins even told his story in the House of Commons, waving his severed ear at shocked Members of Parliament.
Needless to say, Britain and Spain eventually went to war in what became known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear.
Jenkins wasn’t necessarily the primary cause. Tensions between the two kingdoms had been rising for years.
Britain was growing rapidly and wanted to muscle in on Spanish trade routes. Spain was shrinking and desperate to hold on to what it had.
War between rising and declining powers is actually a very common theme throughout history; it’s known as the Thucydides Trap, named after the ancient scholar who wrote the history of the wars between Athens and Sparta.
Athens and Sparta were also rising and declining powers in the 5th century BC. As Thucydides himself wrote, “the growth of power in Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in [Sparta], made war inevitable.”
World War I, which involved several rising and declining powers (Germany, the US, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire) was another Thucydides Trap.
And the rising tension between the US and China is quickly trending towards another.
This conflict is palpable, and in my opinion, obvious. I believe that China has been at war with the US for years, and they haven’t even tried to hide it.
Everyone is aware of the recent Chinese balloon found over nuclear sites in Montana. But the attacks have been taking place for years.
In 2018, for example, suspected Chinese double agent Jerry Chun Shing Lee was arrested at JFK airport after US authorities found evidence that he had infiltrated the CIA and sent classified material to Chinese intelligence.
In 2016, Chinese spying was so blatant that the US Department of Justice actually filed charges against China’s General Nuclear Power Group for stealing US nuclear secrets.
Over the past several years there have been several high profile corporate espionage incidents involving US companies like Google, Dow Chemical, and defense contractor Northrup Grumman.
In 2018 a group of Chinese hackers infiltrated a network associated with the Naval Undersea Warfare Group and stole US submarine cryptography.
Then there were other revelations in 2018 that China was electronically eavesdropping then-President Trump’s iPhone calls.
In 2019 China was found to have hacked dozens of universities who were performing research from the US Navy.
In 2020, the California socialite Christine Fang was exposed as a Chinese intelligence operative who had managed to establish and maintain sexual relations with a number of prominent US politicians.
Then there was the Harvard University professor who had been paid off by Chinese intelligence to leak sensitive research.
Or the 2021 Microsoft Exchange Server attacks, in which Chinese hackers infiltrated several Microsoft mail servers and gained administrative access to countless corporate email systems.
Or China’s role in the 2020 Solar Winds attack, which breached millions of systems, plus hundreds of corporate and government networks, including classified systems.
China has even weaponized its popular social media app TikTok.
TikTok has not only stolen the most sensitive information from its users– lifestyle habits, likes and dislikes, goals, locations, financial details, biometric data, etc.– but it has also developed algorithms to essentially reprogram teenagers’ personalities and take them down a dark rabbit hole of anxiety, violence, depression, and even suicide.
Through TikTok, China has essentially created a tool to wage psychological warfare against an entire generation of young Americans.
And let us not forget, of course, that China also unleashed COVID-19 on the world. But, hey, we’re not allowed to talk about that lest Google and Mark Zuckerberg cancel us off the Internet again.
It’s remarkable that, despite incursion after incursion, attack after attack, the United States has done practically nothing about any of it.
Instead America has adopted a sort of 1930s style European ‘appeasement’ strategy. Or as I call it, “turn the other butt cheek”.
Chinese leaders must be aghast that they’ve been able to get away with so many brazen attacks. And it would be absurd to think their incursions will not continue.
They’ve already stolen mountains of classified information, infiltrated thousands of corporate and government networks… and pre-positioned who knows how many zero-day exploits on critical cyber infrastructure.
In other words, China has already given itself a major tactical advantage should any armed conflict break out.
What are key policymakers in the US doing about it? Well, their top priority seems to be pushing the US military and intelligence agencies to become more woke.
US military combat power is objectively in decline. The Pentagon itself acknowledges that mission readiness is falling, recruiting is abysmal, equipment is aging, and key weapons systems have lost their technological superiority.
But at least everyone is using the right pronouns!!!! We can only imagine how terrified China must be of US Special Operations Command’s diversity and inclusion.
To be fair, I don’t believe that either side really wants a war. If nothing else, China knows that its demographic pyramid is upside down, and they cannot afford for young people to die in combat.
But wars between rising and declining powers have been fought for dumber reasons… like contraband sugar, and a smuggler’s left ear.
Never forget that the ‘leader of the free world’ is a guy who shakes hands with thin air, so it’s anyone’s guess how this plays out.
A shooting war would clearly be a terrible outcome. But so is the status quo of turning the other butt cheek while China continues to weaken the US.
Neither is a good option. Yet once again America’s leadership has absolutely no answers to an obvious threat.