Dance of the peacocks

A metaphor for the current state of the US-China relationship

In Rome, I sat at a very nice café with a friend from high school: we were people-watching. I sipped a cold coffee while my friend drank tea in the hot (34°C) and humid environment.

Suddenly he turned to me and asked: ‘where do you think the next conflict will be?’ 

I smiled and told him that in today’s world, with the significant lack of leadership, there are many areas of tension, stress, fragility and potential for serious conflict.

He retorted in his usual, aggressive but polite manner: ‘Shafik, be specific.’

I said there are too many to count, but here goes: ‘Burma–Bangladesh; the Rohingya crisis; Pakistan and India; the Kashmir crisis; Iran and Israel; the nuclear crisis; Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people for over six decades; Armenia–Turkey; Armenia–Azerbaijan; Egypt and Sudan with Ethiopia regarding the GERD crisis; the failed state of Afghanistan; Ukraine–Russia; China–US; and many more.’

My friend looked at me with a puzzled look and sly smile. He said: ‘Shafik, you mentioned China–US at the end… don’t you see the beginning of World War 3?’

I calmly responded to my friend that there will be no WWIII… at least not until technology is so advanced that one country can use it to destroy another with no casualties of its own; and we are not there yet.

Immediately he responded by pointing out the increased tension between China and the US. How sanctions are being imposed; the significant fear-mongering; the Chinese threats towards Taiwan; the American troops in Taiwan; the South China Sea naval shadow-fighting; China encouraging North Korea to flexing its muscles; America’s non-stop criticism of the Chinese state, and its clamping down on Chinese companies and technology; China’s policing of its own companies; and much more besides. 

I smiled slowly as I finished my cold coffee and asked for a toasted croissant with cheese. 

‘My dear friend,’ I said, ‘do you remember when you and your family joined us on a week’s trip of discovery in Kenya?’

He looked confused and said ‘yes – why?’

I took a bite of the warm croissant and munched slowly. My friend was getting agitated as he eagerly observed my croissant. I ordered him one, despite him saying he wanted nothing earlier, and his attitude relaxed.

I then reminded him: it was a hot summer week in Kenya in the mid-90’s. We visited a beautiful resort (at that time, but sadly no longer) – the Mount Kenya Safari Club. 

This was a place of wonders. The architecture was beautiful. The service was immaculate – you had to dress up for dinner. Everywhere around was the greenery of unique plants and trees.

As you approached Nanyuki, where Mount Kenya Safari Club unfolded within acres upon acres of vistas, you were greeted by innumerable flocks of birds amidst landscaped gardens. Parrots, ibises, marabou storks, crowned cranes, ducks, geese, peacocks strolled invitingly beside you.

I reminded my friend of our visit to Mount Kenya and he acknowledged it with a wistful look as he ate his croissant. Apparently he was quite hungry.

As he finished his tea, he asked: ‘but what does all this have to do with the rising US–Chinese conflict?’ I responded by asking him if he remembered the shrieking, most piercing noise we heard on our second afternoon at the club. Upon searching, we discovered that the source was two beautiful peacocks, with full and open plumage, screaming at each other.

He nodded and asked, ‘so what?’ I pointed out that these peacocks jumped, hopped, screamed, flaunted their colours, moved their heads sideways, straining their necks, their feathers rattling.

I said that this was precisely what China and America were doing. At times they play chess: China’s Road and Belt Initiative; America’s NATO and alliances with the UK and Australia; or its military bases in Japan and South Korea. At other times they do the peacock dance – with the added benefit of multiple platforms to dance on.

‘No World War Three,’ I concluded, asking for the bill, ‘but a lot of posing and peacock dancing, wasting resources and opportunities. The days of Kissinger–Zhou Enlai are no longer here, and nor is there any prospect given the present status quo. There is no single wavelength. China plans for decades ahead and America struggles in Congress to keep its financial system afloat.’

As I was paying, my friend looked pleased. Perhaps thanks to the croissant, more than my dance of the peacocks theory.