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

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

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

Another case is North Korea’s wild ambition to be a nuclear country, and its endless military provocations in order to catch enough attention in exchange for economic aid from the international community, and the United States’ security reassurance in particular. The United States is the formal protector of the Republic of Korea, while China’s defense commitment to North Korea, enshrined in a 1961 treaty, is still valid from the perspective of international law. Although the bilateral relations have been seriously harmed by DPRK’s uncompromising stance in obtaining its own nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, considering China’s important geopolitical interests in the Korean Peninsula and its record in the Korean War in 1950, no one should doubt China’s willingness to defend its national interests in this regard. Despite the inescapable responsibility of the United States, an unpredictable DPRK has already became a disguised troublemaker, not only for China-U.S. relations and China-ROK relations but also for regional stability and security, as we can see from the ongoing endless quarrel over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea.

The most dangerous situation is that the United States has become deeply embedded in cross–Taiwan Strait relations through its contradictory commitments to treaties on both sides. The separation between Taiwan and mainland China is the result of China’s civil war, nearly seventy years ago. Most Chinese see the final unification of Taiwan as an indispensable symbol of its great rejuvenation and the last page of the painful memories of China’s century of humiliation. The increasingly strong pro-independence forces in Taiwan since the 1990s have brought U.S.-China relations to the brink of war several times.

Now, as the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under the lead of Tsai Ing-wen returned to power on May 20, 2016, and in light of her ambiguous inaugural address on Taiwan’s relations with the mainland, cooling relations across the strait have once again become a potential flashpoint. Beijing has expressed its position again and again: that the DPP government in Taipei must clearly affirm that both sides of the straits belong to one China if it wants to maintain all the achievements reached during Ma Ying-jeou’s Kuomintang government. It seems now unlikely to expect Tsai’s government to make such a commitment, as some influential U.S. experts and officials on the Taiwan issue continue sending misleading if not wrong signals to Taipei. They seem to have been quite satisfied with what Tsai said and done so far, and have turned to urging and pressing Beijing to show a degree of flexibility. Some mad politicians and scholars have even begun to image giving Taiwan a more prominent role in the United States’ rebalance strategy, in order to contain China’s growing strategic advantages within the first island chain.

Furthermore, Japan is also strengthening its support for the DPP, which makes things much more complex. Abe’s August 15 speech paralleling Taiwan with China and other regional states, and his meeting with Tsai, reflect Japan’s attempt to reap profit from deteriorating cross-strait relations. Considering the emerging clash of public opinion across the strait, people on the Chinese mainland have shown their disappointment and impatience for the existing official policy of unification through economic and cultural exchanges without a deadline, which seems to not have been so successful, as the recent situation has indicated. Now, if provoked, appealing for a decisive military campaign will prove overwhelmingly popular, which will undoubtedly force Chinese political leaders to move ahead. After all, the Taiwan issue does not only concern China’s core national interest of territorial integrity, but it is also a major pillar of legitimacy for anyone who wants to rule China. So if the United States fails to constrain itself from an illusory impulse on Taiwan, or Tsai suddenly finds herself losing control of the green forces on the island in the years ahead, a great confrontation may be sparked.

Could This Time Be Different? Ways to Manage the Trap

States go to war for many fixed reasons, sometimes unintentionally, and domestic factors matter in almost every case. However, the “Thucydides trap” has existed for thousands of years, while the basic unit of the world system has evolved from city-states in Thucydides’ era to the present day’s nation-states, which shows that the emergence of the “Thucydides trap” has no necessary connection with the attributes of the unit. Although the characteristics of certain kinds of units do precipitate conflict more than others, it is the focus on the interaction between emerging powers and ruling ones, rather than purely domestic-oriented analysis, that really features in the so-called “Thucydides Trap”.

This finding also applies to the observation of China-U.S. relations today. It is obvious that the recent round of tensions also comes from the despair of America elites, who are suddenly waking up to the fact that Chinese reform and the United States’ engagement strategy may not be able to turn China into another America, as they previously envisioned. But we should still keep in mind where the analytical boundary lies when using the term “Thucydides Trap.” As U.S. policies towards Taiwan and Tibet remind us again and again, more and more Chinese are reaching the consensus that whether China is ruled by the Communist Party or not, hostility from the United States is unavoidable if the Chinese nation, descended from the traditional Chinese Empire, wants to stay on its path to great rejuvenation as a whole, because the roots of the tension are in structural factors. So we will not discuss the ideological and institutional disputes between the two states in this limited commentary. After all, all those barriers have accompanied them since the founding of the PRC, long before the “Thucydides Trap” emerged in recent years, even though they do sometimes exacerbate mutual distrust and tensions.

Though China and the United States are more highly interwoven in the economic, social and political dimensions than any other case in history, and Professor Tang Shiping has made a convincingly theoretical proof that the world has already evolved from the offensive world of Mearsheimer to a defensive world of Robert Jervis, in which a defensive security strategy is the best and prevalent rational choice for all countries, the prospect of conflict implied by the “Thucydides Trap” remains. Optimistic thinkers before World War I, such as Sir Norman Angell, as described in his masterwork The Great Illusion, also yearned for high interdependence among industrial countries as a way to eliminate war as a rational choice from the policy menu of all rational states, but reality was so cruel that closely following the outbreak of war, no space remained for their naiveté.

Consequently, if both China and the United States do not anticipate an unintended war occurring between them, they should take the “Thucydides Trap” seriously and collaborate with each other to manage their bilateral relations. As mentioned above, on the systemic level, due to asymmetric attention to the same issue caused by their different statuses in the international system, both countries need to put themselves in the other’s shoes and avoid circumstance leading the other to lose face, whether before the international audience or their domestic audience. On the regional level, because most structural conflicts are caused and exaggerated by third parties, both need to cooperate with each other, as the United States needs to take good control of its allies to prevent itself from being entrapped in a conflict it may not want to see, and China should continue to show its wisdom in defending its rights. For instance, its coast guard rather than its navy plays an active role on the front line in defending its claims over disputed islands and their surrounding waters, referred to as a pattern of “white hulls.” The United States should learn to tolerate such a resolution that leaves both sides a gray space from confronting directly.

All in all, what really matters is to restrict their adventurous ambitions to gain at the other’s expense. But as history has presented again and again, that is always hard to maintain. Finally, it comes back to the domestic dimension as Allison concluded; historical cases of peace have required huge adjustments in the attitudes and actions of the governments and societies of both countries involved. For China and the United States, perhaps the construction of a new model of major-country relations jointly is the only right choice.

Mo Shengkai is a PhD candidate at the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China, and also a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York sponsored by the China Scholarship Council and Professor Robert Jervis. He served as the executive editor of the journal China’s Foreign Affairs published by Renmin University of China for more than one year, and has published several academic articles on leading Chinese IR journals. Chen Yue is professor and dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China. He also acts as the president of the Society of All-China Universities International Political Studies, and vice chairman of Political Science Teaching Advisory Board under the Ministry of Education.