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What the Thucydides Trap gets wrong about China

The theory goes that war is inevitable when an emerging power threatens to displace an old one. But when it comes to the Sino-US rivalry, the logic fails.

By Lawrence Freedman

The alarming possibility of a major conflict between the US and China has been framed as a likely consequence of a pattern of great power behaviour first identified by the fifth-century BCE historian Thucydides. In his study of the Peloponnesian War, the Greek wrote: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” This argument is now most associated with the Harvard academic Graham Allison, who claims to have identified 16 instances in which a dominant power has sought to suppress an emerging rival before they became too strong. He notes, disconcertingly, that 12 of these ended in war.

Allison first presented his thesis of the “Thucydides Trap” in the Atlantic in 2015, and developed it in a book, Destined for War, in 2017. Since then, Allison’s argument that the relationship between the US and China is growing increasingly volatile has gained even more credibility with tensions over trade, the South China Sea and Taiwan.

But Allison’s notion of the Thucydides Trap – the tendency towards war when a rising power threatens to displace an existing one – fails to address the risks involved in conflict and the reasons why wars occur. The story told by Thucydides is much more complicated than the “Trap” suggests. The notion of inevitable conflict between Athens and Sparta elides the fact that the Athenian leader Pericles made poor strategic calls. Different decisions would have avoided war.

These choices were largely about the cohesion of the respective Athenian and Spartan alliances, and the possibility of a smaller state defecting because it did not feel protected. A major difference now is that there are asymmetrical alliances: China is far more isolated geopolitically than the US.

[see also: How China is reclaiming history]

If lessons are to be drawn from past power struggles the most relevant among them is the Cold War. The avoidance of armed conflict between the US and the Soviet Union was to a great extent owing to the presence of nuclear weapons. This is a threat that both Beijing and Washington must consider and in that respect, the Cold War is a better comparison than the rivalries between Portugal and Spain in the 15th century or those between England and the Dutch Republic in the 17th.

China is also involved in a complex set of power relationships. Russia was once China’s senior partner; now it is China that is the stronger. Fifty years ago they almost came to blows; now they enjoy an uneasy cordiality. Meanwhile, there has been tension on China’s border with India (another rising power?), while in 2014, the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe noted disturbing similarities between Europe in 1914 and his country’s dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands (claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands). China must consider possible conflicts with all the major players in the region, and not just the US. To Beijing’s consternation new security pacts have emerged, such as the Quad, consisting of the US, Australia, Japan and India, and the Aukus agreement between Australia, the UK and the US.

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As China has become more powerful it has grown more assertive, which is why its neighbours have become anxious about its intentions. But contrary to the logic of the Thucydides Trap, in the past China went to war –with Korea in 1950, India in 1962, and Vietnam in 1979 – when it was in a position of weakness, not strength. Its military and economic power is now second only to the US, but that also means China has much more to lose in any kind of protracted, multi-front conflict.

The “Trap” argument is also undermined when you consider the view held by many experts that China’s power may have already peaked. The nation is facing a series of system problems that may halt its rise, including an unbalanced economy, an ageing population, environmental degradation and political dysfunction resulting from President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian turn. Indeed, recent war scares start from the assumption that the leadership in Beijing might want to invade Taiwan before China’s power wanes.

The risk of war in the Indo-Pacific region cannot usefully be understood as the result of an upstart power challenging the established global hegemon for supremacy. Issues of interest and alliances are as important as power balances, and all need to be watched carefully if conflict between the world’s preponderant forces are to be addressed and, hopefully, avoided.

[see also: The left must stand against Xi Jinping’s totalitarian China]

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage