Growth, Import Dependence, and War

By Roberto Bonfatti (University of Nottingham) and Kevin Hjortshøj O’Rourke  (University of Oxford)

World trade has increased tremendously in recent decades, driven by the rise of China and other emerging economies. The reliance of world trade on choke points (such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea) creates the need for someone to guarantee the freedom of navigation. Traditionally, this role has been upheld by the naval hegemon of the day: Britain during the 19th century’s Pax Britannica, and the United States today. While the naval hegemon may in fact be providing a global public good by behaving in this manner, its activities may not always reassure everyone, especially if strategic tensions are gradually building up between itself and rising powers such as China.

Rising tension between the US and China is often analyzed in the context of the broader challenge that the rise of China poses to US military hegemony. Political scientists have long cautioned against the risks posed by shifts in relative power. In fact, in the eyes of some theorists, such shifts are the main reason why war can occur. Robert Powell shows, in the context of a two-country world, that if one of the two countries is catching up militarily on the other, it may be impossible to dissuade the established power from launching a pre-emptive war against the rising power.[1]

This is because from the perspective of the established power, not going to war carries a future cost: in the future, the rising power, having become more powerful, will be better able to impose its will on the established hegemon when it comes to disputes between the two. The follower has an incentive to forestall a pre-emptive war by the leader, by promising the leader a sufficiently big slice of the pie in the future. Since it cannot pre-commit to this, and has an incentive to use its greater power in the future to secure a greater share of the pie, the leader may choose to launch a pre-emptive war in order to lock in a higher share of the spoils while it still has the chance.

Applied to the case of industrial catching up, this model seems to have clear implications. Military power goes hand in hand with growth and industrial development; thus, an established industrial leader should be the one to consider launching a pre-emptive war against a catching-up, late industrializing, follower.

In our recent work, we show that, if international trade is taken into account, the implications of the model can be quite different.[2] Central to our analysis are the assumptions that the follower needs to import increasing amounts of raw materials from the rest of the world, as it undergoes structural change, and that the leader may be able to blockade the follower’s trade.

An industrial leader may well be losing out to a catching-up follower in terms of potential military power; however, this does not necessarily imply that it is actually becoming militarily weaker over time. 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, and not the other way around.

By generalizing the model in this manner, we open up a rich menu of theoretical possibilities. For example, the follower may decide to attack resource-rich peripheral areas in an attempt to become more self-sufficient, or entirely self-sufficient, in raw materials. It may do so instead of, or prior to, launching an attack on the leader. The follower may even attack the resource-rich region in circumstances when it knows that this will provoke an attack upon it by the leader, when otherwise the two countries would not have gone to war.

We argue that our model can shed light on why it was Japan who attacked the United States in 1941, and not the other way around.[3] This was unambiguously a case of an industrial follower catching up on the leader. And yet Japan was also becoming rapidly more dependent on imported raw materials. Japan’s invasions of resource-rich Manchuria, China, and Southeast Asia were attempts to break free from this pattern of increased dependence: they correspond to attacks on the resource-rich region in our model, prior to an eventual attack on the leader.

Like Japan, late 19th and early 20th century Germany had been rapidly catching up on the Britain and the United States. However, Germany had also become more dependent on imports of food and raw materials. While we do not argue that this strategic dependence explains the origins of either world war in Europe, Avner Offer has argued that it was a key factor explaining the Anglo-German naval rivalry which preceded World War I.[4] After World War I, Hitler was obsessed with German dependence on imports of food and strategic raw materials. The importance of securing the resources needed to fight his wars is a constant theme of Adam Tooze’s classic book on the Nazi economy.[5] One obvious solution was to attack Eastern Europe, which corresponded to the resource-rich peripheral region in our model, even though attacking Poland risked war with the UK and France. And in the long run, conquering Russia was seen as the only way to achieve complete self-sufficiency in raw materials.

Such theoretical and historical considerations suggest that it is Chinese vulnerability, rather than American, that we should be worried about. As long as the United States 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.


Barnhart, M.A. (1987). Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941. Cornell University Press.

Bonfatti, R. and K.H. O’Rourke (forthcoming). “Growth, Import Dependence and War.” Economic Journal. An earlier version is available as CEPR Discussion Paper 10073.

Offer, A. (1989). The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation. Clarendon Press.

Powell, R. (2006). “War as a Commitment Problem.” International Organization, vol. 60(1), pp. 169-203.

Tooze, A. (2006). The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, Allen Lane.


[1] See Powell (2006).

[2] See Bonfatti and O’Rourke (forthcoming).

[3] See Barnhart (1987).

[4] See Offer (1989).

[5] See Tooze (2006).

9th Annual Conference of the Trade, Integration, and Growth Network (TIGN)

Lima, Peru, May 18-19, 2018

The 9th Annual Conference of the Trade, Integration, and Growth Network (TIGN) will be held in Lima, Peru, on May 18-19, 2018. This conference is sponsored by the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association (LACEA), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the CAF-Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), and the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), and is hosted by the PUCP. The TIGN conference is a unique event that brings together top researchers and policymakers to discuss recent theoretical and empirical advances in trade and integration and growth broadly defined.

For additional information on this conference and to register and submit a paper please visit:,7302.html

The deadline for submissions is February 28, 2018.

2 Research Fellowship Positions

The University of Naples Parthenope announces a selection procedure for 2 Research fellowship Positions on the topic: “Institutional and Economic Imbalances in the Eurozone and the European Union” for the scientific sector SECS-P/02 (Economic policy) to be funded by means of University group research funds assigned on a reward basis, scientific coordinator: Prof. Marcella D’Uva, Department of Business and Economic Studies.

The fellow will have the task to investigate the role of policies and institutions in the adjustment, stabilization and support of economic growth processes. The objective is to analyze the nature of the paths of divergence between economies and to design the best policies to face economic and institutional imbalances with particular emphasis to the European Union. The study should provide policy recommendations to enhance competition and growth.

Duration, Renewal and Amount

Each research fellowship will last 12 months. Each fellow will receive 12 months’ research funding; the gross total payment is Euros 19.367 (Nineteenthousandthreehundredsixtyseven). This amount is considered to be net of the charges to be borne by the lending administration. The amount of the research funding will be paid in monthly installments deferred with the prior authorization of the scientific coordinator.

The fellowship is not compatible with any other grant, except for those awarded by national or foreign institutions, with the objective of supporting the fellows’ research activity for a short period of study abroad. The research fellowship is also incompatible with the attendance to a Master’s degree or a PhD, in Italy or abroad, and requires a period of leave from the official occupation for the entire duration of the fellowship and involves the placement on leave without allowances for the employee working in public administrations other than: universities, institutions and public research and experimentation bodies, Italian National Agency ASI, as well as institutions whose diploma of scientific improvement has been recognized as equivalent to the title of PhD pursuant to art.

Eligibility Criteria

The selection process is open to researchers having a professional scientific curriculum suitable for carrying out research activities under this announcement, as well as holding the following requirements:

  • Ph.D in Economics and/or Statistics; candidates that have finished their PhD thesis and will complete their PhD programme (viva) within the first six months from the start date of the fellowship may also apply for the selection. The qualifications obtained abroad must be recognised as valid in the Italian territory under the art. 332 of the T.U. no. 1592/1933. It is a preferential title to have deepened the research topics described in art.1.

Preferred requirement are

  • a research track suitable to comply to the tasks and objectives described in art.1. and
  • a very good knowledge of the English language.

Other preferred requirements are:

  • experience in drafting high quality scientific articles.
  • consolidated experience in the use of statistical software (Stata, E-views, Matlab etc.)

Requirements for admission to the selection

Deadline for Application: March 5th 2018 by the 12.00 (noon)

The application form (see annex A for a template) accompanied by the required documentation, should be addressed to the Head of the Department of Business and Economic Studies of University of Naples “Parthenope”, via Generale Parisi n. 13 – 80132 Naples (Italy) and can be hand-delivered from Monday to Friday, 9.00-12.00 am by mail to the above address or for the foreign applicants by e-mail to the following address:

Only for applicants with certified email address (PEC) the application form can be sent by certified electronic mail (PEC), sending the application and its annexes together with the identity document in pdf format, at PEC e-mail address:

The envelop or the e-mail must indicate the call reference (DISAE/2018-1/AR), otherwise the candidate will be excluded by the competition, and must be received by the 12.00 (noon) of the deadline of 30 days from the date of publication of this notice. The Department is not responsible for any loss or late delivery of the application due to third parties.

Download Full Call for Applications in English

Download Full Call for Applications in Italian

2 Doctoral Positions in International Economics

Gutenberg School of Economics and Management, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz

The Chair of International Finance at the University of Mainz, Germany, invites applications for two doctoral positions.

The ideal candidates are students who are currently completing their graduate program or master and who show strong interest in current topics of international economics. The intention should be to combine model-based theory with empirical work.

Teaching duties are two academic hours per week (e.g., a class of teaching assistance per term, consisting of 14 lectures of 90 minutes). Knowledge of the German language is helpful but not required.

Applications should be sent to the email below and include a cover letter with a sketch of research plans, a resume and a writing sample.  The review of applications begins immediately and continues until the position is filled.

Interviews will be conducted in Mainz or via Skype.

Application Deadline: 31 March 2018


Philip Sauré

Johannes Gutenberg-University

Department Law and Economics

Chair of International Finance

Jakob-Welder-Weg 4

D-55128 Mainz