How America and China Could Stumble to War

F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to land on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Flickr/U.S. Navy

Can Beijing and Washington escape the Thucydides Trap?

May-June 2017

WAR BETWEEN the United States and China is not inevitable, but it is certainly possible. Indeed, as these scenarios illustrate, the underlying stress created by China’s disruptive rise creates conditions in which accidental, otherwise inconsequential events could trigger a large-scale conflict. That outcome is not preordained: out of the sixteen cases of Thucydides’s Trap over the last five hundred years, war was averted four times. But avoiding war will require statecraft as subtle as that of the British in dealing with a rising America a century ago, or the wise men that crafted a Cold War strategy to meet the Soviet Union’s surge without bombs or bullets. Whether Chinese and American leaders can rise to this challenge is an open question. What is certain is that the fate of the world rests upon the answer.

Graham T. Allison is director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 30.

Image: F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to land on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Flickr/U.S. Navy

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