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Revealed: How to Avoid a U.S.-China War

In book one of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides provided his explanation for why the Spartans (or Lacedaemonians) broke the thirty years’ truce treaty with the Athenians after just fourteen years: “I consider the truest cause the one least openly expressed, that increasing Athenian greatness and the resulting fear among the Lacedaemonians made going to war inevitable.”  Thucydides reiterates later how the Spartans assembly voted “that the treaty had been broken and that they must go to war not so much because they were persuaded by the arguments of their allies as because they feared further increase in the power of the Athenians, seeing the greater part of Hellas under their control.”

Historians and political scientists have remained focused on the hypothesis offered by the Athenian historian two and a half millennia ago: shifts in the relative balance of power between competing states or alliances can—intentionally or unintentionally—culminate in the most consequential outcome in international relations, great power war. Rising powers often hide their grand strategic objectives (assuming there are coherent preferences among that country’s leadership)—such as whether they accept the status quo or seek to change the international system. In the face of such uncertainty during power transitions, there may be incentives for declining powers to undertake preventive, aggressive actions against the rising power—the “better now than later” thinking.

These historical precedents and social science findings are directly applicable to the relative rise of Chinese power and influence in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. I have written a short essay, “The A Word: An Accommodationist strategy for US-China relations,” that attempts to provide some framework for how U.S. officials and policymakers could think about the “rise of China” challenge. Below are some of the issues discussed:

-Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, aptly warned, “We shouldn’t talk ourselves into [a conflict].” The antagonistic language used to describe China as an adversary could needlessly limit cooperation and harm relations. In order to avoid talking itself into a conflict with China, the United States should take a more accommodating approach.

-The United States and China, as well as other countries, will have to continue to learn to live with each other in open seas, international airspace, outer space, and cyber domains. In the absence of clarifying information from Beijing about its operations in these domains, it is easy to misperceive objectives and unnecessarily inflate threats.

-China’s expanding military must be put into perspective. It is reflective of most rising powers throughout history that seek some ability to shape outcomes in their neighborhoods, and is rationale and even predictable.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Politics, Power, and Preventative Action here.