War between the U.S. and China is not inevitable, but it may be more likely than we think. Thucydides’ Trap provides a lens for understanding conflict between the U.S. and China. They have fallen victim to a recurrent dynamic in which the emergence of a rising power instills fear in the ruling power. In the history of 16 of such rivalries, only 4 averted war. What lies ahead?

Our observations

  • In the book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? author Graham Allison explores the history of conflict between ruling powers (like the U.S), and rising powers (like China). He argues that the U.S. and China are currently on a collision course for war – unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it. His argument is based on the history of 16 rivalries of which 12 ended up in war.
  • Since the turn of the century, U.S. foreign policy has slowly shifted to a more confrontational approach towards China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, introduced by president Obama, was already designed to contain China’s growing economic power, just like president Trump’s more aggressive trade war.
  • The decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies has also been underway for some time. It has already occurred in terms of the internet and GPS: China has banned U.S. tech companies for years, mandates that certain data be stored on Chinese servers and recently completed its 35-satellite network. Financial decoupling is also underway: U.S. senators introduced legislation last June to force Chinese firms to comply with regulations or withdraw from U.S. financial markets.
  • Through territorial disputes, trade wars and military build-ups, the center of global geopolitical friction has already moved to East Asia.
  • The RAND Corporation publishes the “S.-China Military Scorecard”, which examines U.S. and Chinese military capabilities. The report finds that China already has an “advantage” or “approximate parity” in 6 of the 9 areas of conventional capability: for instance, in achieving air superiority and preventing an opponent from using space-based weapons.
  • We have previously noted that during hegemonic shifts of capitalism, the ruling financial power clashes with the rising economic power.

 

Connecting the dots

The idea of Thucydides’ Trap, based on the ancient Greek soldier Thucydides who, during the Peloponnesian Wars, believed that conflict between ruling Sparta and rising Athens was inevitable, may sound deterministic. However, we should take Graham Allison’s argument seriously: war is not inevitable, but both the U.S. and China have to take extremely difficult measures to prevent war. Currently they are not doing so, which means they are on a collision course for war.
In the history of the 16 rivalries between ruling and rising powers, the same psychological dynamic has unfolded. As the rising power grows more confident, its emergence instills fear in the ruling power. The former believes that it is not treated fairly because the international system, dominated by the latter, does not reflect the new balance of power. As the rising power believes that its rise is harmless and others have nothing to fear, it is increasingly blind to the fear of the ruling power. In this situation, hubris clashes with paranoia. Both powers are increasingly prone to take measures that (sometimes unintentionally) signal malicious intent to the other. Take, for instance, the lead up to the First World War. A British weapons program built new battleships (the Dreadnought) in 1906. This led Germany to widen the Kiel Canal, allowing German battleships to move quickly from the Baltic to the North Sea. A British Admiral (John Fisher) predicted that war with Germany would come when the widening of the canal was finished – the war began one month after the canal had been completed. As ruling Britain and rising Germany collided, the latter took a measure to protect itself, which the former interpreted as an existential threat. As both countries did too little to avert war, their collision became violent.

Four rivalries did not end up in war and they provide some clues for the future of the U.S. and China relationship. First, in the late 15th century, Portugal and Spain averted war because there were plentiful resources to be divided: Pope Alexander VI drew a line to divide the Western Hemisphere into Portuguese and Spanish territories. Second, in the early 20th century, Britain and the U.S. averted war because the ruling power was confronted with a bigger threat: the rise of Germany pushed Britain to accept U.S. hegemony. Third, during the Cold War, war was averted because both countries transformed a tense dynamic with a high risk of escalation into a diplomatic framework with recognized spheres of influence underpinned by mutual assured destruction (MAD) – until the rising power collapsed. Fourth, after German reunification, war between a rising Germany and Britain and France was averted because Germany was embedded in international European institutions.
What is the most likely timeline for the coming years? In the short-term, tensions are likely to remain high as both countries are testing the waters: U.S. assertiveness, decoupling and military investments will accelerate. In the medium-term, it is possible that the relationship reaches a phase of stabilization, similar to the Cold War and the Thirty Years’ Peace between Athens and Sparta, which will always be a “fragile peace” because the underlying power dynamics do not change. However, before conflict will stabilize, the U.S. and China will focus on defining their spheres of influence, which will raise tensions especially across East Asia (e.g. Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and later, Southeast Asia).

Implications

  • The coming years will determine the spheres of influence of the U.S. and China. Currently, the U.S. holds significant influence in Korea and Taiwan. As China grows more powerful, it will try to pull these countries into its sphere of influence.

  • As there will be no continent to be divided (i.e. Portugal versus Spain), there will be no bigger threat to the U.S. than China (Britain versus the U.S.), and there will be no constraining multilateral institution (i.e. Germany versus Britain and France), it is likely that conflict will only be stabilized through diplomatic frameworks similar to the Cold War that divide spheres of influence.

  • In the absence of attempts to stabilize the relationship (e.g. Trump puts more pressure on China after he gets reelected), the likelihood of a violent incident (e.g. in the South China Sea) will grow ever more likely.