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Are China and the US falling into the Thucydides Trap?

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Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Gen. Fang Fenghui shake hands after signing an agreement to strengthen communication between the two militaries amid tensions concerning North Korea at the Bayi Building in Beijing, China, 15 August 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Mark Schiefelbein).

In Brief

Building his analysis on Thucydides’ study of the Peloponnesian War, Graham Allison and his colleagues have studied the classic international relations problem of military conflict between a rising power and an established dominant power. They identified 16 such situations over the past 500 years, and found that 12 of them ended in war — painting a gloomy picture of the future of US–China relations.


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Critics of Allison’s work have argued that the relationship between the United States and China is very different. They are deeply interdependent both economically and politically, with sustained communication between the US and Chinese militaries. Others note that mutual assured destruction means that a US–China nuclear war would be suicidal, making even the suggestion of war between the two countries unthinkable.

These are valid reservations but there are three key points missing in critics’ dismissal of Allison’s warnings. These are the unprecedented risk involved in nuclear war, the positioning of today’s militaries and the reality of an erratic and unpredictable president of the United States.

Since the sole use of nuclear weapons in wartime — the 1945 attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — scholars have meticulously assessed the likely human cost of any subsequent use of nuclear weapons. Such studies have become of particular importance considering that the capacity of the weapons held in the arsenals of the nine nuclear powers today is many times more destructive than what was unleashed in the World War II bombings.

The consensus is that a nuclear exchange between any two of the major powers would result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of civilians, as well as the likely advent of a so-called ‘nuclear winter’ in at least the Northern Hemisphere that would make human existence difficult, if not impossible. Never have we faced such possibilities of mass destruction.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock is set at three minutes to midnight, the closest to disaster since the 1980s.

The second point that many critics ignore is that the United States, China and Russia have all trained and positioned their militaries to launch a nuclear attack on the others at literally a moment’s notice. Admiral Scott Swift, Commander of the US Pacific fleet, was once asked whether he would follow through if US President Donald Trump ordered him to launch a nuclear attack on China. He replied in the affirmative, citing the foundational principle of civilian control over the military. US military forces, like the militaries of all nuclear powers, are trained to engage in nuclear war in obedience to the command of their political leader, without hesitation or reconsideration.

Third, the Thucydides Trap argument is a structural analysis, focused on the changing material capabilities of competing powers. But the presidency of Donald Trump requires us to add another dimension to the problem: the role of political leaders. To date, Trump’s presidency has been inept and dangerously destabilising. Moreover, public criticism of his behaviour has apparently caused him to behave even more erratically and defensively. This kind of leadership makes the likelihood of confrontation and conflict even greater.

It is vital to understand just how extraordinary are the times in which we live. Unlike the 5th century BC of Thucydides’ Greece, the stakes today are higher, the dangers are greater, and the need to take constructive action is more urgent than at any time before.

Peter Van Ness is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School, The Australian National University.

3 responses to “Are China and the US falling into the Thucydides Trap?”

  1. This article correctly points out the unprecedented risks of the potential breakdown of the US-China relationship in the 21st century in comparison to the Thucydides’ Trap as coined by Graham Allison. Comparison is drawn from Ancient Greece where Athens and Sparta went to war against one another over the fear of the rise of the other state. It is shocking that 12 of the 16 cases found by Allison ended in war and does warrant our attention on the protentional destructive future.
    Of the three points as pointed out by the author, the element of unknown which is found in the incumbent President Trump is a scary thought. Trump has demonstrated his attitude towards global politics almost on a weekly basis in the form of his tweets and one cannot be certain if he will not drive the US into a war with China. His tweets on sensitive matters such as the North Korean ICBM testings show his bravado, which certainly is not needed when dealing with a ‘rogue’ state armed with weapons. Raising the stakes by threatening to bring ‘fire and fury’ to the North when Kim threatened to bomb Guam is quintessentially Trump and at this point in time, Trump declaring war on China in the near future won’t be of a great surprise.
    The role of the leader of the US is a position of great importance and responsibility, and with a man such as Donald Trump in office, China must take on a greater conservative and an understanding approach if Trump was to order any action. The chances are, his orders will not reflect the minds of the general public.

  2. While the author has presented some good points, it appears that either the critics or the author have probably misrepresented a basic fact. That fact is, among the known nuclear powers, there are both qualitative and quantitative differences to many orders. The US and Russia are the only two nuclear super powers and all others are minuscule by comparison and are no match to those two.
    The second point presented by the author of the post states the likelihood of readiness of the US, Russia and China for launching a nuclear attack, that point confused a fact that China is the only country among those three that will not use nuclear weapons first. That is an extremely important point of difference between China and most of other nuclear powers.
    Do those two facts make any differences to the risks of war among the known nuclear powers? I bet they do, because it means imbalance of powers among them and that imbalance implies the nuclear super powers can bully others while the opposite is unthinkable.
    We have all observed that President Trump has treated Russia and China very differently. That imbalance between the among the US, Russia and China in terms of their nuclear capacities may be a factor in explaining President Trump’s attitudes.
    If one incorporates that fact into analysis, one may add an additional point to the risks of potential conflicts between the US and China.

  3. I found the Allison study rather puzzling. Logically you would expect in each conflict the winner of the previous contest with one new challenger but that isn’t the case. This creates the impression that his selection was rather random.

    The US kept a low profile until it was clearly the superior of Britain. And even now it is feeding the British ego with the “special relationship” – no matter how hollow it is.

    Until Deng – who I consider a wise man – China was doing the same: keeping a low profile while building the country. Xi – who I consider unwise comparable to emperor Wilhelm who led Germany into World War I – does the opposite. There was need to escalate in the South Chinese Sea. There is no need for an almost officially declared arms race with the US.

    The problem is with small conflicts is that it cannot be predicted whether they will escalate or not. Germany had had prior conflicts with France and Britain such as the Morocco Crisis. And in 1914 too everyone expected that this would be a short conflict.

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