How to Avoid the "Thucydides Trap" | CHINA US Focus

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How to Avoid the “Thucydides Trap”

Su Xiaohui, Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS
June 19, 2013
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The leaders from China and the US wrapped up their two-day summit in Sunnylands, California. Since the meetings were informal, the two sides did not sign a series of agreements or release a joint statement, as they usually do in state visits. However, the role of this summit was unique. It acted as a more effective approach for the two countries to communicate with each other.

During the meetings, the leaders touched upon a wide range of issues relating to the bilateral relationship, in which two may play some special role in improving dispute management between the two sides, and accordingly help them escape the “Thucydides trap.” The historian’s metaphor reminds us of the dangers that the two parties face when a rising power rivals a ruling power, as Athens did in 5th century BC, and Germany did at the end of the 19th century.

Improving Military Exchanges to Reduce Mutual Distrust

Up to now, China and the US have maintained military exchanges and made some progress in this field. In 2012, high-level military officials, including defense ministers from both sides exchanged visits. The dialogue channel between the two militaries also played its role. The second China-US Strategic Security Dialogue and the 13th China-US Defense Consultation between the two Departments of Defense were held in May and December 2012 respectively. Moreover, both sides promoted cooperation in areas of low sensitivity, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

However, neither China nor the US believes that current exchanges are sufficient for building mutual trust. On one hand, China’s increasing military budget and capability have inevitably drawn some concern from the US side. From the US perspective, China still lacks transparency in its military development. On the other hand, the US increasing military presence in Asia-Pacific has resulted in China’s suspicion of its purpose. The truth is that the US has extensively carried out a rebalance, in which the military is a key perspective. The country has set out the plan to deploy 60% vessels and air forces in the region. The increase in the deployment is moderate, but what matters is that some US officials have made it clear that this is partly for counterbalancing China’s military build-up.

Both sides have come to realize that the military relationship has had a negative impact on the overall bilateral relationship. Fortunately, the leaders agreed to strengthen the military-to-military relationship during the summit this time. The positive developments are that China will attend the “Rim of the Pacific” exercises in 2014 at the invitation of the US. The drill hosted by the US used to include a number of regional countries, but excluded China.  

Manage the Territorial Disputes to Avoid Conflict

Some say that China’s increasingly aggressive posture towards the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea has increased the risks for a Thucydides trap between China and the US.

For six decades after the World War II, an American “Pax Pacifica” has provided the security framework for Asian countries. China, as a power that will overtake the US position as the largest economy in the world, will seek more benefit in the region and demand revisions to the rules established by the US. In this context, the territorial disputes that involve the two countries may serve as the breaking point of the problems.

However, there is possibility that the China and the US will be able to manage the disputes.

China does not aim for conflict. Actually, China is seeking a balance between defending national interests and maintaining an agreeable regional environment. With this guideline, China is firm in defending its territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights; at the same time, it persists in peaceful development and is willing to solve the disputes with related parties through bilateral dialogue and negotiation. China has made this point clear to the US. During the summit, President Xi expounded on China’s above stance on Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea.

As for the US, the country acknowledges China’s positions and has realized China’s determination in defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Misunderstandings and miscalculations will be avoided. As for the Diaoyu Islands, China’s response was out of the expectation of both Japan and the US.  The US will try to avoid a similar awkward situation.

It is difficult for the US to change its basic principles in dealing with territorial issues in the Asia-Pacific. However, with China’s efforts, the US will be more cautious in claiming its positions, and will strengthen management and control over related issues. The most likely situation is that the US will maintain the pressure on both China and other parties in disputes, in order to prevent the problem from getting out of control.

Strategically, China and the US have achieved an agreement that the zero-sum game will harm both sides’ interests and they will cooperate in avoiding the Thucydides trap. Specifically, in the process of improving military exchanges and managing territorial issues, the two countries may find a way to finally establish a new type of relationship.

Su Xiaohui is Deputy Director at Department of International and Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies.

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