The Thucydides Trap
Are China and America destined for conflict?
The grand strategic question that vexes Washington more than anything.
Just last week an American Naval vessel, armed to the hilt with GBU 31 laser-guided missiles, sailed about 12 miles from Triton, a minuscule island in the South China Sea that the People’s Liberation Army have occupied. China is peeved because its military planners view the rocks as a matter of sovereignty and territorial integrity; they feel the US Navy is encroaching on the gradual extension of the PRC’s regional sphere of influence. But America (and every other nation) has the right, under the “freedom of navigation” law, to sail in those sea lanes with impunity. As a result, China is growing tetchier by the day. So far, conflict has been avoided.
Graham Allison, a big cheese Harvard historian, thinks the world underestimates the risk of a confrontation between the world’s only hyper-power, the United States, and China, a “fledgling superpower, sole strategic rival, and no.1 ‘frenemy’ of America.”
When a rising power challenges an incumbent, conflict often ensues. Thucydides, an ancient historian and chronicler of the Peloponnesian wars (431-404 BC), teaches us that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
Professor Allison has evaluated 16 similar cases since the 15th century — Spain vs Portugal, France vs Germany, America vs the UK, the USSR vs America, and so on — and the factors that led to either homeostasis or hostility. All but four ended in war. The author doesn’t claim with certainty that war with China is inevitable, but in probabilistic terms (“according to precedents and analogues”), he deems it “more likely than not.”
This hairy hypothesis is shared by many strategic doyens in DC and other Western capitals, where Allison’s book is causing quite a kerfuffle. So it is worth sizing up his arguments.
For seventy years, America has fashioned a liberal world architecture to foster and forward its own self interests. China, with its skitzo blend of Confucianism, Maoism, piping nationalism and quasi-capitalism, pursues irredentist claims and ‘strategic aims’ that are increasingly inimical to the US-led order. Altercations are unavoidable. “The long peace is perhaps now in jeopardy,” argues Professor Allison.
Conflict would be catastrophic for both countries, but that doesn’t mean it can’t occur. World War I was born out of a context of cumulative miscalculations and follies. America and the USSR, for instance, avoided direct conflict and thus skirted ‘total war.’ But they came perilously close to armageddon on more than one occasion (for example, in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, and in 1979, when a computer glitch at NORAD erroneously indicated that the Soviets had launched a barrage of ICBMs at America and US commanders prepared for a speedy retaliation). Things can gum-up unexpectedly in global affairs, resulting in non-linear and nasty outcomes — what the great theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, called “unpredictability from cumulative frictions.”
America and China could goof up in several ways, according to the book. A stand-off in the South China Sea could snowball into a sudden and violent conflagration. North Korea’s cantankerous despot, Kim Jong-un, might provoke the POTUS into a first strike on the north, drawing in China and putting US and PLA forces into a geo-strategic/kinetic contest against each other. A cyber-attack or ‘trade war’ might degenerate into an all-out blitzkrieg, or a slip up between submarines around the Senkaku Islands (contested by China) might trigger a naval fracas, say, prompting the Chinese navy to target American aircraft carriers or Japanese frigates, and so on.
Professor Allison is correct in assuming that Donald Trump is a rogue disruptor, who might not have a comprehensive grasp of China’s aims, capabilities and tolerances. Messrs Trump and Xi should strive to understand each other. But the author’s outlook is overall too pessimistic. China is, in the end, a risk-averse and sly superpower. Beijing’s bureaucrats and top brass, while fostering feverish nationalism at home, avoid entangling feuds and warmongering around the world.
They will be preoccupied for the foreseeable future with trying to solve thorny domestic probs (an imminent debt crisis, multiple ecological catastrophes, potent inequality, slowing growth, etc.). Yes, Taiwan and China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea are potential flash-points and could trigger a cascade of catastrophic reactions. But contrary to Thucydides’s thesis (and Allison’s), China has no intention of amping-up its influence beyond its neighborhood, nor is it really in the empire game (nor could it be given its constrained resources, tenderfoot navy and puny ‘soft power’ preeminence).
Moreover, the book uses a limited data set to flesh out the supposition. The author’s examples predate the nuclear age and the logic/doctrine of mutually assured destruction — a form of Nash equilibrium in which China and America avoid war altogether due to both countries’ mutual, total, and assured annihilation. Nevertheless, this book is bangin’ because it identifies the cardinal challenge to world order: the interplay and impact of the world’s ruling power and the world’s rising power. Watch the cool videos below.
Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? By Graham Allison. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 384 pages; $29.99.
Images US Department of Defense + Wikimedia Commons China + The PLA; graphics courtesy of the CIA
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