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Ancient meets modern in online battle

By Barry He | China Daily | Updated: 2018-04-13 08:02

China's e-commerce Game of Thrones has parallels in a conflict thousands of years ago - but the implications are all too modern

The e-commerce battle raging between tech giants Tencent and Alibaba in China could have a precedent in a seemingly unrelated chapter of history - Greece in the 5th century BC.

In 460 BC, the ancient Greek city of Sparta, fearing the rising power of the Athenian empire, led a military attack against it. The bloody Peloponnesian Wars that followed between the two great powers transformed the economic and political landscape of the ancient world beyond recognition, and shaped the beginnings of the Western world.

The term Thucydides Trap, named after the Athenian historian who documented the event, now is used to explain how, when a rising power causes fear and insecurity in an established power, an upset to stability occurs, with total war the most likely outcome. Thucydides himself, in the most commonly accepted translation, wrote: "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear that this caused in Sparta." History has taught us that, time and time again, when dominance to a great power is challenged, conflict shatters the status quo as we know it, with consequences reaching far into the future. This has been true in 12 out of the 16 historical examples that scholars offer when explaining the phenomenon.

Fast-forward 2,500 years, and the corporate "Game of Thrones" landscape in 21st century China is not greatly dissimilar to that in ancient Greece. Like a modern-day Athens, the social media conglomerate Tencent is a rising power that has amassed equity of more than $500 billion (404 billion euros; ��352 billion) in recent years, becoming the first Asian company to do so. As a new challenger for the position of top dog, Tencent has been rapidly moving into the prosperous battleground of e-commerce, a market set to be valued at $1 trillion. Alibaba, having been the established Chinese market leader since the late '90s, has taken note and hit back with a series of aggressive market purchases to maintain dominance.

One ongoing skirmish is in the online food delivery market. Alibaba recently acquired, a food delivery app worth $5.5 billion, according to CBI Insights. This now means Alibaba has a 48.8 percent share of the online food delivery market, giving it an edge over the 43.1 percent share controlled by Tencent-owned online-to-offline food delivery platform Meituan-Dianping. With the acquisition now completed, Alibaba will gain valuable ground against Tencent, dominating the Chinese online food delivery market, worth $32.5 billion.

Alibaba's tactical purchase has also forced Baidu's exit as a player in online food delivery. It once owned a 60 percent share of The exit of Baidu, the second-largest search engine in the world, with over 2 billion users, is now little more than collateral damage in the ongoing rivalry between the two tech giants as the gears of war continue to turn.

The significance of the latest deal in the sector cannot be underestimated. Both Alibaba and Tencent are putting the pieces in place for an arms race between their respective mobile payment platforms: Alipay and WeChat pay. While other countries are catching up with integrating widespread mobile e-payments, everyday Chinese life revolves around mobile apps with which users can order food and taxis, and send or receive money as quickly and efficiently as possible. How these maneuvers play out will mean significant changes to everyday life for the 1.3 billion mobile phone users in the world's most advanced consumer mobile transaction superpower.

Whether the battle results in a duopoly or one victor on top with a dominant market share, it is likely that these Eastern tech giants will cast their eyes to foreign markets for fresh pastures in coming years and challenge multinationals abroad. The competing plans of corporate giants, which innovate technology dictating our daily routines, cannot be understated.

China's modern-day technology Thucydides Trap will matter to us all.

The author is a London-based columnist. Contact him at















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