"The growth of Athenian power and the fear which this sparked in Sparta made war inevitable," Thucydides, an Athenian general and renowned historian and author, concluded in his seminal History of the Peloponnesian War, a work that narrates the conflict between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE. Thucydides argued that Athens' swift rise caused this 30-year conflict.
(Yicai Global) Sept. 20 -- Harvard Prof. Graham Allison coined the tag 'Thucydides Trap' to encapsulate his thesis of the inevitability of war between China -- here representing the rising star, Athens -- and the US -- as stand-in for the incumbent, Sparta. This is a seemingly paradoxical inversion, since most would more likely associate the US with democratic Athens, and China with authoritarian Sparta. Be that as it may, Allison argues a power transition between a hegemonic power and a rising rival that quickly lowers the power imbalance and challenges the status quo renders war most likely. He cites 16 historical cases in support of his hypothesis, 12 of which resulted in war, in modern instances killing millions and erasing countries and even empires from the map.[i] The historical record thus seems to validate the Thucydides Trap. The salient instance where war failed to occur was between the US, the rising power, and Britain, the dominant one in the late 19th century. All other cases without war were in the post-World War II 20th century. Large-scale war between rising and dominant powers has been entirely averted in the nuclear age. The fear of an atomic show-down has limited great power conflict. Harvard Prof. Rosecrance and Peking University's Jia hold that, "… nuclear weapons … [have] drastically reduced the usefulness of war … to settle great power rivalry."
Earlier territorial aggressors -- Germany and Japan – afterwards realized they could prosper without territorial enlargement. Commerce replaced conquest as a means to gain national wealth, as in Germany's Wirtschaftswunder and Japan's later equally meteoric economic rise. Unlike them, China has already achieved its 'economic miracle' without first undergoing a fruitless and wasteful aggressive phase, and so has no need to repeat their mistakes after the fact.
Furthermore, the US is not China's only competitor. US allies like Japan, Korea, Australia and Canada are too. The US-China rivalry is not just a bipolar contest.
Professors Donald Kagan of Yale and Ernst Badian of Harvard long ago proved the Thucydides Trap is illusory. The Spartans, Prof. Kagan informs us, wanted no war, pre-emptive or otherwise. They lived a simple country life, living largely on black bean soup. Athens' rival, Corinth, taunted the young Spartans into belligerence -- they disregarded their own king, Archidamus, who inveighed against war. Allison, they say, who knows no Chinese and little of China's history, seems awed by China's population, army, growth, production, etc. and sees China as a clearly rising power wanting its just deserts -- which will lead to war between them, started by the US to thwart China's world domination power-play. Pure economic and demographic figures point to Europe, not China, as the US' main challenger, yet Europe and the US do not appear predestined for war.
Former ambassador to China James Lilley recalled a US lecturer on Taiwan as saying that unless Washington yielded to Beijing's demands, nuclear war was ineluctable. A Chinese army general attending whispered to Lilley: "Does he think we're crazy?"
China is in an arms race with Japan, India and its other neighbors. It has huge economic vulnerabilities, imports vast amounts of energy and has water resources on a par with Sudan's, i.e. severely deficient. China's industrial advances and growing might dominate many talks about its global ambitions, but its economic vulnerabilities will compel it to overcome daunting obstacles just to survive. Its economic miracle is already nearly spent. A military solution offers only worse problems, as the University of Pennsylvania's Arthur Waldron noted in a recent piece appearing in straitstimes.com, and armed adventurism would be a romp blindfolded through a minefield given China's geographic situation and the further vulnerabilities to which this exposes the nation, as it has always (Huns, Mongols, Manchus, Japanese). This very geography is itself a negation of any notion of historical predestination -- Sparta and Athens were next-door neighbors, whereas China and the US could only really destroy one another from their respective ends of the Earth by going nuclear, as both well know. Add to that the radioactive wild card now in North Korea's hand, and all bets are off.
Casting the competition as a zero-sum game -- the Manichean penchant of US President Trump -- is thus the true trap ensnaring China-US relations. It is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Humans will ultimately negotiate agreements that will enable them to withstand the political perils of changing power relations. "We must all strive to avoid falling into the Thucydides Trap; the notion that a great power is bound to seek hegemony doesn't apply to China, which lacks the gene that spawns such behavior," said China's President Xi Jinping, adding that the two nations will reach an accommodation to obviate war. Let us hope he is right.
Finally, an unscientific survey conducted among Chinese colleagues here at Yicai Global showed 70 percent agreed with President Xi, 20 percent disagreed and 10 percent declined to comment. Let us also hope their majority view holds true, too.
[i] Source: Thucydides Case Studies – Graham Allison The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/