Prominent Scholars Debate US-China Relations and Thucydides Trap
The year was 431 BC; the location, ancient Greece. Sparta was the dominant power in the region, but Athens was on the rise. Historians say a combination of ambition, fear and pressure from allies drove the two city-states to nearly three decades of warfare.
The Peloponnesian War, described by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Hanson Baldwin as “a silly war that marked the failure of the most brilliant civilization in history,” ended with Athens’ defeat in 404 BC.
Now, a leading scholar argues in a new book, a similar combination of forces threatens to drive the United States and China down the same path, into what he calls the “Thucydides Trap” in recognition of the Greek historian who documented it.
Competing nations faced with such pressures more often than not turn to war to satisfy their desires to either seize or maintain supremacy, insists Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, in an interview with VOA.
But he says there are lessons in Thucydides’s “History of the Peloponnesian War,” written 2,500 years ago, that can help major powers avoid being inadvertently dragged into conflicts by third parties, often their own allies.
Be clear about what China wants
Allison, who currently directs the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, lays out his case for Beijing’s global ambition in his new book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
“China’s emergence as the number one power in Asia — and its aspiration to be number one in the world — reflects not just the imperative of economic growth, but also a supremacist world view bound up in Chinese identity,” he writes.
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Elaborating in an interview, Allison says the notion that China “just wants to be another responsible stakeholder, maintaining the order we are part of,” is wishful thinking.
“China wants to be predominant in Asia, as Teddy Roosevelt wanted to be in our hemisphere,” said Allison, referring to the U.S. president who proclaimed in 1904 that the United States had an exclusive right to settle international disputes in the Western Hemisphere.
However, “China’s objective is contrary to our objective; and we should be clear about that, and also be clear that China is not going to give up this objective.”
In his book, Allison says China’s ambition is causing “tectonic structural stress” on the international order. In response, he writes, the United States should consider all strategic options, “even the ugly ones,” which would include accommodating China’s ambitions without sacrificing America’s “vital interests.”
“Accommodation is not a bad word. Opponents seek to conflate it with appeasement. But the two are not synonymous in the realm of strategy. Accommodation is a serious effort to adapt to a new balance of power by adjusting relations with a serious competitor — in effect, making the best of unfavorable trends without resorting to military means,” Allison writes.
Narrowing down the range of “vital interests” could help nations avoid Thucydides’ Trap, he says.
“I don’t believe the U.S. has a vital interest in every island in the South China Sea,” he said, nor does he believe the U.S. should fight for “every claim made by the Philippines or Vietnam.” By the same token, he says Washington could reassess military deployment on the Korean Peninsula in the negotiating process with Beijing.
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Questioning Thucydides trap and US strategy
Critics of Allison reject both the notion of a Thucydides’s Trap and the merit of “accommodation.”
“Thucydides’s Trap is a myth, invented by theory-driven political scientists” and “a bumper sticker that we may expect to see on a lot of academic and policy elite cars,” said Arthur Waldron, a prominent historian and China scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Finding ways to “give China what it wants” is equal to “forgetting the lessons of so many previous wars: appeasement of aggressors is far more dangerous than measured confrontation.”
If there’s any pattern that could be traced between established and rising powers, Waldron says, it is that “powers that are rising or aspire to rise tend to move first, for it is only by crippling the other powers that could otherwise crush them that they can get ahead; they’re the ones that preempt,” while the established powers by contrast, he says, tend to “avert their eyes, seek negotiations, appease, but do not preempt.”
“Still, war seems likely” between the United States and China, according to Waldron. It will come “when China goes too far, for example by attacking Japan or Taiwan.”
The result, he predicts, will be that China’s government will fall and “Asia will be ravaged and wasted beyond imagining.”
For his part, Allison thinks “one of the great assets of the U.S. is that in a free society, anybody can raise any idea and debate, and we think that through debate we learn.” By contrast, “part of the problem with the Chinese government and the system of government is that people are afraid and unwilling to raise questions that need to be debated.”
If no one in China dares to publicly debate topics such as reassessing China’s vital interests or avoiding war with the United States, and the only officially sanctioned narrative is what China can do to be more assertive, Allison warns, that this will not only create an “unhealthy environment” but also create a dangerous “asymmetry” in Beijing’s strategic thinking.
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