Why the World Should Fear a 'Thucydidean' China

"A China of Athenian inclinations would be a domineering China, apt to bully Asian neighbors that can’t match up to Chinese diplomatic, economic, or military might." 

“We don’t care about your stupid FONOPs.” That’s what a group of retired People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officers told an American interlocutor recently. They referred, of course, to the “freedom-of-navigation patrols the U.S. Navy has undertaken in the South China Sea of late. Most recently the destroyer USS Decatur mounted a challenge in the Paracel Islands. But if not FONOPs, what does get Chinese blood pumping? “We care about our ability to project power,” quoth the doughty seafarers. “Law is only as good as it can be enforced.”

How refreshingly Thucydidean! Or, more precisely, how refreshingly Athenian. Odd, isn’t it, how politics makes strange bedfellows? And few bedfellows could be stranger than the compact democratic city-state from Greek antiquity and the sprawling one-party authoritarian state that is contemporary China. But however radically they differ in domestic rule, classical Athens and present-day China operate from similar principles in the international realm.

These hardbitten principles derive from the conviction that law and justice go no further than arms can take them. They find their clearest expression in the “Melian Dialogue,” wherein Athens makes a weaker neighbor an offer it can’t refuse—join the Athenian empire or die—then metes out a harsh fate when the neighbor does refuse. The Melian Dialogue isn’t just a historical episode. It’s a parable about the consequences of too lopsided a power mismatch against an amoral foe.

Thucydides is the premier chronicler of the Peloponnesian War and an eyewitness to many of the war’s events. In the father of history’s telling, Athenian statesmen are forthright about the exploitative nature of the system they superintend. In the early years of the Peloponnesian War, “first citizen” Pericles reminds his countrymen that Athens is a tyranny abroad, regardless of how liberally it comports itself at home. It may have been wrong to seize an empire; it’s dangerous to let it go once it has been taken. Paybacks are hell.

Pericles knew whereof he spoke. Founded as a democratic alliance in the wake of the Persian Wars, the Athenian-led Delian League degenerated into a coercive empire as the fifth century B.C. wore on. Athens moved the league’s treasury from the island of Delos to Athens, stripped its allies of their navies, and forbade the allies to erect walls around their cities—walls that might empower them to defy Big Brother’s bidding. No ally was permitted to leave the empire.

That’s tyranny with a capital T. Brute power constitutes the prime mover impelling Athenian actions. Thucydides relates the tale of the fateful encounter between Athens and the island city-state of Melos. In so doing he lays bare Athenian motives.

Melos occupied a strategic offshore location near Athens’ archfoe Sparta, making the island an ideal outpost for naval operations. The Athenian assembly dispatched a delegation to wring surrender from them.

After entreating the Athenian ambassadors to allow them to maintain their neutrality, the islanders opt to defy the Athenian demands. Melos falls after a brief siege, whereupon the Athenian assembly votes to kill the adult male populace and enslave the women and children.

The Melian Dialogue reveals several undercurrents in Athenian power politics. First of all, the Athenian emissaries—much like our retired PLAN officers—maintain that questions of justice seldom arise in international politics absent a rough parity of arms between antagonists. This elemental reality is not lost on the Melians, who seem resigned to defeat from the beginning yet cling stubbornly to their independence. “We see that you have come prepared to judge the argument yourselves, and that the likely end of it all will be either war, if we prove that we are in the right, and so refuse to surrender, or else slavery.” Athens confronts them with a Catch-22.

The Athenians agree with the Melians’ grim prognosis, proclaiming that “the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” For Athenians this amounts to a divine law. “Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can.” Not only is this a permanent precept of international relations, but “anybody else with the same power as ours”—including the Melians—“would be acting in precisely the same way.”

A China of Athenian inclinations would be a domineering China, apt to bully Asian neighbors that can’t match up to Chinese diplomatic, economic, or military might. For a statement displaying a Melian tenor, look no further than Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who in 2010 told a meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” We’re big, you’re small—get used to it. Take note, Asian countries, if you treasure your rights under the law of the sea.