The U.S.-China 'Thucydides Trap': A View from Beijing

Soldiers in Beijing, China. Flickr/@budbug.

The “Thucycides trap” isn’t a death sentence.

“It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” —Thucydides

China’s rising comes as the most pronounced but complicated feature of the twenty-first century. In the past few years, people over the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, have witnessed increasing tensions in U.S.-Chinese relations, from all levels and in a wide range of areas. Graham Allison, a world-famous expert on international security and also the founding dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, was the first person to combine the concept of the “Thucydides Trap” with the analysis of China’s ongoing rise, with recent commentaries published in global influential newspapers and websites such as the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Atlantic. In those articles, he warned that over the past five hundred years of human history, twelve of all sixteen cases of global tensions resulted in shooting wars. What’s more, he argued that a Thucydides trap has arisen between the United States and China in the western Pacific in recent years. Thereafter, some world-class masters, including Zheng Yongnian, Robert Zoellick, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Patrick Porter and T. J. Pempel, followed in using this popular term when talking about U.S.-Chinese relations today or in the years ahead, regardless of their personal attitudes toward such a pessimistic term.

Its impact was so great that China’s President, Xi Jinping, had to respond to it publicly once again during his state visit to the United States, when he delivered an address to local governments and friendly groups in Seattle. He presented himself as a constructivist IR scholar, in the eyes of skeptical American realists, by emphasizing the importance of mutual intentions and interactions while rejecting the pessimistic prospect of bilateral relations projected by the widespread identification of a so-called “Thucydides Trap” between the two countries.

Unfortunately, it is the constructivists that always remind us that either discourse or prediction might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most scholars in China reject the so-called metaphor from history and regard this simplistic historical analogy as the newest vision of the longstanding “China Threat Theory.” However, from an academic point of view, theoretical and empirical analysis is still necessary. Objectively speaking, the widespread use of the term “Thucydides Trap” just indicates a period when a rapidly rising power has obviously narrowed the gap between itself and the system’s dominant power, simultaneously stirring up fears and anxieties in other countries that are satisfied with the existing distribution of power. As Allison himself puts it, the two crucial variables are rise and fear.

The real risk associated with the “Thucydides Trap” is that business as usual—not just an unexpected, extraordinary event—can trigger large-scale conflict. War is not destined, though risks undoubtedly become very high compared with other periods in the bilateral relationship. Similarly, it implies a period in which all countries, especially emerging and ruling powers, should be very cautious in dealing with their relationships and divergences if neither has any intentions to embark upon a devastating war. We will now illustrate the concrete scenarios of the gathering “Thucydides Trap” between the two giants.

On the Systemic Level: A Battle over Rules?

Some observers of U.S.-China relations describe the most prominent features of bilateral relations in 2015 as a battle over rules. The most important element of an international system is defined by its key norms and rules. As Allison has pointed out, the defining question of global order in the decades ahead will be whether China and the United States can escape the Thucydides trap. In the eyes of sensitive Americans, China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” strategy was nothing more than a parody of the Marshall Plan. Additionally, China’s global efforts to set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank encountered resistance from an implicit U.S.-Japanese joint-led coalition. Generally speaking, a battle over rules is visible from both the security and economic dimensions.

In the dimension of security, the most eye-catching problem is the still escalating dispute over the freedom of navigation (FON) and overflight in the South China Sea. It has been a longstanding dispute between the two countries, and has already caused severe crises in 1994, 2001 and 2009. This time it was reinvigorated by China’s unparalleled artificial island construction in the South China Sea, in response to the deliberate provocations of the Philippines and Vietnam. For China’s part, its actions are justifiable to defend its territorial integrity without any room for retreat, when considering surging public opinion and the very high political audience cost that the Chinese government has suffered.