China-United States relations and the 'Thucydides Trap'

SrinagarWritten By: Wajahat QaziUpdated: Jan 25, 2019, 02:25 PM IST

File photo of US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Photograph:(Reuters)

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The "Thucydides Trap" appears to have a searing resonance in the relations between the US and China with the former being the incumbent power and the latter a rising one.

Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta, held by some to the doyen of the school of the realist school of international relations famously said: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear that this caused in Sparta”. This assertion, in the 20th century, formulated into a coinage by Harvard professor, Graham Allison, who called it the “Thucydides Trap” referred to the fear that a rising power caused in an incumbent one which then escalated toward war.   

The "Thucydides Trap" appears to have a searing resonance in the relations between the United States and China with the former being the incumbent power and the latter a rising one. Echoes of the trap, while resplendent in most domains and areas of the relationship between the two also came when the United States sent two warships through the Taiwan Strait in the first such operation this year.   

Taiwan being a major flashpoint between the United States and China, the voyage risks further heightening tensions with China, which considers Taiwan its own and has not ruled out the use of force to bring the self-ruled island under its control. While this particular incident or event is more in the nature of posturing designed to send a message to China but, in the grand scheme of things, it could be held as a prelude to a putative militarised dynamic and tenor of relations between the two countries.

All this assumes salience against the backdrop of the Trump presidency which has held China in its crosshairs. Be it the trade wars initiated by the American president, or other forms of disputes and tensions thereof, it is increasingly becoming clear that the United States is stymieing China’s efforts to attain Great Power status.

Inevitably or perhaps naturally, China will not only resent this stymieing but also make counter efforts to check, balance or hedge the United States. What will ensue is friction and frisson which might, at some point in time, lend themselves to an outright confrontation between the two.

In the process, there will be an inexorable drift to the “Thucydides Trap” which might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An alarming scenario, it must be checked and contained the soonest for if war occurs between the United States and China, the strides of progress that the world has made will be frittered and, in an extreme scenario, mankind’s survival might be at risk. The question is how?

The answer lies in the realm of both politics and economics. As the wit has said, “all war is bad politics”. This is a maxim that powers that be across the China-United States divide must take to heart and devise means and mechanism of a political nature that precludes the option of war. In the realm of the immediate, this could mean instituting and crystallising confidence-building measures that aim at reassurance and not confrontation and conflict. 

The complement to this approach must be disavowing mercantilist protectionist approaches of the political economy toward each other and actually deepening trade and financial linkages. While this “complex interdependence”, historically, did not prevent the first World War, but deepening trade and financial linkages, because they lead to economic growth and development for members enmeshed into its framework, create stakes and opportunities which make war not impossible but improbable.
It is the cumulative confluence of the two that might create propitious conditions between China and the United States and preclude the drift toward war. But, alas, the actual and real condition of the world and domestic politics across the world suggest that this salubrious condition or set of conditions might not actually come to pass. The “return” of the nation-state and its concomitant, nationalism, along with protectionist mercantilism besides leading to what has been called “ deglobalisation” is also making the world a more edgy and a fraught place. Among other things, this has heightened the salience of geopolitics and competition thereof whose corollary is heightened conflict and tension. 

Without any real checks to militarised competition between the major states of the international system and a flawed and weak global governance institutional architecture, what might actually come to pass is the “Thucydides Trap” which, broken down, amidst the contemporary geopolitical and world political configuration might mean war between China and the United States.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)