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Foreign Policy

Can China and US Escape “Thucydides Trap” ?

Apr 20, 2021
  • CCG

    Center for China and Globalization


A Dialogue Between Graham Allison, and Wang Huiyao 

On April 6, the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) hosted a virtual dialogue between Professor Graham T. Allison, the founding dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides‘ Trap? and President of CCG, Dr. Wang Huiyao, joined by Professor Li Chen, director of Center for International Security and Strategy at School of International Studies, Remin University of China. Topics discussed included great power competition in historical perspective, new paradigms to escape the Thucydides Trap, US-China relations after Anchorage and the global war against Covid-19 and climate change. Following are excerpts from their dialogue on line. 

Wang Huiyao.jpg


Wang Huiyao: The discussion we’re having today is on the topic “Destined for rivalry partnership - US-China co-opetition in changing reality”. Professor Graham’s famous book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? was published in 2017. So, my question is: Can America and China escape this trap? It’s been four years since the publication of your book. Maybe Professor Graham can share with us some new thinking about that. 

China and the US are “inseparable conjoined twins”

Graham Allison: So I’ve long argued that Chinese should be much more forthcoming in helping all of us appreciate more of what Xi Jinping now calls Chinese wisdom. Actually, I applauded the fact that he’s been now more forward-leaning about the idea that maybe Chinese has earned something that the rest of us could learn from. I’m eager to hear what others have to say on the topic but I have a pretty good idea on what I think. I’m trying to become clearer about the way forward.

Let me make three points. First point, for those who may not remember the Thucydides’ trap and Thucydides’ rivalry. The point is that the defining feature of the relationship between the US and China today, for as far ahead is any I can see, will be a ruthless rivalry. So in a competition, in which a rising China, which is seeking to make China great again, will continue as it has for a generation, rising, and becoming stronger and as it does so we will be encroaching on positions and prerogatives that Americans, as the ruling power, have come to believe, are naturally their own as number one, at the top of every pecking order. If we put this against the historical canvas, the best way to clarify what’s actually happening in this relationship is that China is rising, as long as China doesn’t crash or crack up, it will continue rising. So currently, it has about one fourth of the per capita GDP of the US, but of course, it has four times as many people. So on the current trajectory, why shouldn’t Chinese be as productive as South Koreans, which of course they will be. And if they were, China will have more than half of the per capita GDP of the US, but then it would have a GDP twice the size of the US. So as China rises in every arena, Americans who have become accustomed to believing we are number one in every competition will find themselves being overtaken or even surpassed. So at the beginning of the century, America was the major trading partner of everybody. By 2021, China is the major trading partner of almost everybody. A generation ago, America was the manufacturing workshop of the world. Today, China is the manufacturing for the world.

So, in the structural realities, it’s a rising China that’s impacting a ruling US. And I compare this in my book to like a seesaw of power in which China gets stronger and wealthier and more powerful inevitably. That’s nature of the Thucydides’ rivalry. That rise shifts the tectonics of power, the seesaw of power between the rising power, and the ruling power. So that’s point one.

Point two, equally important. We now live in the 21st century, where the objective conditions in the 21st century have condemned that the US and China to co-exist since the only other option is to co-destruct. So two arenas here. First, nuclear weapons. we learned in the Cold War. We learned very painfully when the Soviet Union acquired a robust nuclear arsenal that was capable of a second strike, that we lived in a “MAD” world that was called mutually assured destruction. So that means that if one attacked the other, at the end of the story, both would be destroyed. So this is like a mutual suicide pact. I have compared it to inseparable conjoined twins in which if one gives way to its impulses in dealing with the other and strangles it, it will succeed in killing its twin but it will commit suicide. So that’s the nuclear base, and that’s true in the relationship of the US and China today. Even though the US has a much larger nuclear arsenal, it’s still the case that if there was a full scale of nuclear war, in the end of the war, America is destroyed. So that’s mutually assured destruction. We also have, in the 21st century, as we understand, climate. China, which is the number one greenhouse gas emitter, and the US, which is the number two emitter, are admitted into the same contained biosphere and can either by themselves create an environment in which neither can live. So we have a kind of analog on climate.

And in addition, we’re both so entangled in a process of globalization and the global economy that no one can decouple himself from this without impoverishing himself. So on the one hand, we’re going to be fierce rivals. On the other hand, we’re condemned by nature and by technology, to cooperate, in order to survive. So, how about these two contradictory ideas at the same time? And that’s why in searching for ways to escape Thucydides’ Trap. I found very interesting the bit of Chinese wisdom as best I can understand it that in the Song dynasty, back a thousand years ago, when in 1,005, the Song having found themselves unable to defeat the Liao, a northern Mongol tribe, negotiated the Chanyuan Treaty, as some historians have called it. They agreed to become rivalry partners. So they had defined areas in which they would continue to be rivals, but they had other areas in which they were thickly cooperating. In fact, it was a very peculiar arrangement, because even though the Liao agreed that the Song was a major dynasty, the tribute actually flowed from the Song to the Liao. So the Song were paying the Liao. But the deal was the Liao had to take whatever tribute that was paid and use it to buy things from the Song. You had actually an early version of the multiplier effect in economies. In this treaty, for whatever reason, the Song dynasty is not appreciated sufficiently. That’s my poor man’s view of Chinese history, so apologies for that. But in any case, from my perspective, since I’m interested in not having war, it’s Chanyuan Treaty that preserved peace between the Song and the Liao for 120 years. So I would say in the annals of history, a treaty that takes two parties who are in fierce rivalry, and manages a 100 years of peace between them has done a pretty good thing.

Wang Huiyao: I really like your twin metaphor. Now we are actually in a much more intertwined world where we are actually inseparable, it’s a twin relationship. We have to work together in fighting climate change, the pandemic and all the other challenges. So if we really separate, we end up both dying. So that is a great metaphor.

Also, you mentioned that you summarized the 16 incidents in the last 500 years, in which four of them actually ended up peacefully. I know that Professor Li is a military strategy researcher and as Graham has mentioned, in the context of the Song-Liao relationship in the Chinese history, the Chanyuan Treaty actually secured peace for almost 100-200 years and they had 380 representative exchanges during this 100-200 year so that there is a possibility that we can maintain this peace. So perhaps Professor Li can share a bit of your ideas on how we can avoid Thucydides’ trap, based on your research.

Li Chen: I have a few comments on Graham’s remarks. Firstly, I think with regard to both the concept of the rising and ruling powers, in particular, for the experience of both the rise of the US in the 19th century or early 20th century and the rise of China in this last 70 years, the most important factor is the home front. That is, we need to concentrate on our economic development at home and also solving our social problems. So I think this is one of the most important lessons. 

My second point is that with regard to the challenge and risk of the great power competition, I totally agree with Graham. During the Cold War, the nuclear weapons were extremely dangerous. And I think in the 21st century, we also have other new technological challenges, such as cyber. Because our daily life depends on cyber. If the great power competition escalates, I think we will face serious challenges in the cyber domain so we need to manage this competition very carefully. 

My third point is about the relationship between the Liao and the Song, as mentioned by Graham. I have 2 points here. The first is that probably we need to have a long term perspective, because the Song-Liao experience is a long peace after the long war. Both sides had learned plenty of lessons from the long war of at least 30 years. So probably one challenge for the 21st century is that we can't have a long warfare after a long peace, because it will be very destructive. And my second point is that the reason why the Song and Liao had the long peace is that they realized that you can't rely on force to solve all of your problems. At the same time, you have the other concerns such as external challenges, and also you need to focus on your home front as just mentioned. 

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Graham Allison: Can I ask Chen Li one question, Please? Looking at the Song and their relationship with the Liao,  is this a special case in Chinese history or are there some analogs that you would regard as similar from which we might also learn something? 

Li Chen: From the experience of the ancient China, the major dynasties, not only Song, but also Han Dynasty and other dynasties – as they tried to improve their policies to maintain peace with all the entities, we can probably find other periods of peace. So I think that this is a very interesting area for our research. And that's something probably we can learn more from you because you pay more attention to the lessons from ancient history on contemporary history or current affairs. 

Graham Allison: In the US and England, there are many people who study Chinese dynasties and it's actually fascinating because it's such a long history. It's so complex and for a poor person like me who doesn't speak mandarin and comes late to the party, it’s staggering as for the US, I have trouble thinking of 300 years of history. So for 3,000 or more with so many twists and turns, it's a very rich body of experience that ought to be processed for lessons and I think Chinese historians, obviously, are advantaged in that. But there are many people in the West also interested. 

Wang Huiyao: Actually in the history of China, there are many examples that fights were avoided and peace was secured. Even not too long ago, Zheng He, an envoy, took 7 expeditions to go as far as to Africa and Southeast Asia, which was 100 years before Columbus discovered America. During these trips, they gave a lot of gifts to other countries and the locals, and never colonized any nations. So you can see that historically, China is peace-loving, and now, it still hasn't sent a soldier to occupy any territory of others. 

Now I’d like to also follow up for another question. Graham, your recent Foreign Affairs article called for the Biden administration to adopt an “unsentimental China policy”. How do you view the essence of the US-China rivalry as based on structural change or something more complicated - a combination of fear, value, psychology and ideological differences and even a clash of civilizations? Can we really do something on that? 

China and the US need a new coordination mechanism to avoid mutually assured destruction 

Graham Allison: I think the good news about Biden is that he is somebody who is well-grounded and has thought about international affairs, for all of his adult life. I've known him for more than four decades. He and Xi Jinping have probably spent more time together than any other leaders, other than Putin, or before that, Lee Kuan Yew. They understand each other. So when they had this phone call, they're not starting from scratch. They're building on a relationship that’s developed. 

And I think President Biden appreciates the fact, the challenge is the Gatsby Challenge. So in The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald writes the test of a first-class mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time and still function. So idea one: this is going to be a fierce competition, because both the US and China are determined, to whatever extent they can, to be the biggest economy, the smartest economy, the best AI, the best military, the biggest trading partner, the fast whatever. So when the Olympics occur, each will be seeking to win as much gold as they can. That's what the Olympics is. That’s on the one hand. 

On the other hand, at the same time, and somewhat in contradiction with the first, is the fact that unless the US and China can find ways to coordinate and cooperate in dealing with climate, we’d create a biosphere that nobody can live in. Unless US and China can find a way to cooperate to make sure third-party actions like set of events over Taiwan or North Korea so that an incident doesn’t spiral out of control, we can end up in a war, we can end up in a real full-scale war. We can end up destroying both societies. Most people can’t imagine what that means, but there was an old cold warer, as we used to look at target charts and calculate the destructive effects. It could literally be the case that if we had a full-scale nuclear war between China and the US, both China and the US would be wiped off the map. But that's inconceivable. No human being can make sense of that but that's the physical capability of the weapons that exists. 

So we are compelled to cooperate, to avoid sequences of events that could boost that result, to avoid letting unconstraint greenhouse gas emissions create a globe we can't live and we can't breathe in. So how to do these two things at the same time? And how, actually, to explain that, in the politics of both countries, which are both complicated? Because Americans look at China and say “My god! How could China be rivalling us on all these fronts?” We remember when China was small and poor, backward as a developing country. And Chinese, when they watch anchorage or other events and when I read of people who watch China social media, some people say “Enough for this, we don't need to have an American lecturing us any more, we have become bigger and stronger, we need to be more assertive”. So on managing the internal affairs of two great powers, I think Xi Jinping and Biden may be able to hold two contradictory ideas and function. But how can they manage their governments in their societies under these conditions? That's the problem I have been working on. But I don't have too many good ideas. 

Wang Huiyao: I like the idea you said that the Olympic Game spirit. If we can conduct a peaceful competition where we all strike for gold medals and maybe we have a win-win situation. So we can really avoid a “I pick your problem, you pick my problem” situation, in which, we are not really concentrating on solving our own problems. So this kind of Olympic Game spirit is really suitable, for this comparison of Sino-US relations.  

To learn lessons from the Cold War in terms of negotiation and crisis management

Li Chen: As Graham mentioned in his earlier comments, he is convinced that the leaders of the two countries are determined to manage the competition, but he's not sure whether the societies and the public opinions of the two sides will do so as well. Well, a positive lesson from the Cold War is that we have two periods. The first is the mobilization of both sides. At that time, people probably believed that force and pressure would work. But I think later on, both sides realized that pressures and force had limitations. So the mobilization period of the great power competition passed the world into détente, the period of stabilization.

So I think the key point here is that if we can manage crisis very, very carefully and we review the lessons of the competition - not only the leaders, but also the ordinary citizens, then the public opinion will realize that in the long-term competition, we need to talk with each other and also cooperate with each other, not only to maintain peace, but also to solve problems.

Graham Allison: In the Cold War, it started with the idea that these are two systems inherently so incompatible, that one will have to destroy the other and that would normally lead to war. And then, eventually, we discovered that we would have to coordinate and constrain, but also communicate very quickly and even cooperate in order to prevent things getting out of control. So I think the lessons from that set of experiences, even though the current rivalry between US and China are very different, nonetheless can be very instructive.

But I think there is no reason why in the rivalry between the US and China, we shouldn’t pick up, dust off and adapt all of the lessons that we learn from the earlier period about the necessity for communication at many levels, for thick communication, for crisis management procedures, even for crisis prevention procedures.

Wang Huiyao: Also I noticed that the President Biden, just a week ago announced this massive and gigantic infrastructure plan for the US, which is enormous. And China has been able to develop very well on the infrastructure front. China has set up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. So probably we need a new Bretton Woods moment and can work with the US to build up a world infrastructure investment bank, so that we can really share some common interest with the US and to build a larger pie to share and to distribute. 

And I noticed Henry Kissinger spoke at a Chatham House event recently and also at the China Development Forum that the final issue between China and the US and other western countries is whether they can reach an understanding with China. If not, it's almost like the eve of the First World War.  This issue is very dangerous. How can we find common things to work together to accept China? 

Graham Allison: For infrastructure, I think it's interesting that if you look at the Biden infrastructure bill, one of my Chinese friends said to me, this is called the American version of China 2025. In part, it's inspired by President Xi Jinping’s earlier version. So the US could learn a lot from China in infrastructure development. In the period of the US was building up one high-speed rail going from Los Angeles to Sacramento that actually got into $85 billion worth and gave up. China built 12,000 miles of high-speed rail.

I think the place to start is the Thucydides’ rivalry, most often, leads to catastrophic destruction. That's insane. And that’d be insane for China and insane for the US. So the imperative for all of us is to find the way to escape the Thucydides’ Trap. I think fortunately, we have Xi Jinping who gets this completely, who says, the reason why we need a new form of great power relations is we know what happens in the old form, the Thucydides’ dynamic. Biden understands this very well. What are we worried about? He's worried about an unconstraint rivalry ends up with a catastrophic outcome. So I think we have an open door for ideas.

Wang Huiyao: Another idea would be the CPTPP, formerly TPP, designed by the US for higher standards of trade, service trade, IPR protection, digital economy, SOE reform, environmental protection and the labor rights. It’s really a 21st century mini-WTO which was initially made by the US during the Obama-Biden administration. Now, as President Xi has said at the APEC summit that China is interested in joining and China is ready to cooperate with all the higher standards, it would be a great area where US and China can come back to and talk about. Then we can set a good example for the WTO reform and really push things forward. 

Paying more attention to the potential consequences of the Thucydides’ Trap

Li Chen: I think to avoid this trap, we can pay more attention to the consequences of the trap. I think probably this is the advantages of the leaders and people who lived through the early Cold War or the middle Cold War, because those generations of people are very familiar with the experience of the Second World War. And for the older generation, they were even familiar with the First World War. So they knew what the consequences of the trap are. And I think, later on, they also developed their ideas about the consequences of nuclear war. But I think one challenge for people today, probably not for Graham, but for young people like me is that we have lived in peace for so long. And some people are excited about progress of our countries, but probably pay less attention to the consequences of great power competition and conflicts. So I think in terms of perceptions, we need to put more emphasis on the consequence of the trap in order to avoid the trap.

And I think with regard to the economic development, Graham was very generous, saying that the US need to learn more from China. But my idea is that the US also has plenty of things in its history for us to learn as well. In particular, for example, in the early 20th century, and even during the Second World War, US production was very impressive. We should become more open minded about learning lessons from others, which is very important.

Wang Huiyao: With a lot of common threats and a lot of common interests, it's totally different from the time of the First and Second War and the Cold War. We are now in a world of common prosperity.

And we have another question: “With regard to current situation, what's your suggestion for both governments? What's your comment on the US-China Alaska meeting?” 

Graham Allison: I think the Anchorage meeting of both parties showed they're going to be tough with each other. They're gonna be clear-eyed about their interests first and they are going to lead with competition rather than cooperation or engagement. I would say that was pretty predictable and it happened, we are where we are. Immediately after or even before, US and China had agreed to co-chair the G20 working group on climate, helps you get a bigger picture. US and China will come up with some specific proposals for doing something on the climate front before the G20 meeting.

I think we shouldn't be misled by the atmospherics. We should keep looking at underneath all this - what actually is happening? I think what's happening is an appreciation that this relationship is going to be fiercely competitive, because the US would prefer its position and China would prefer its position and the relative power of the parties has been changing and will continue to change so that would be very difficult. But at the same time, I think both are capable of attending to the arenas in which they have shared interests. China might come to CPTPP and the US might come back to something like that. That would be a big benefit for both of them, and for all of the parties. Basically we know that trade agreements that create win-win situations produced a bigger pie for everybody. 

On the era of engagement being over - I think that's right. The kind of engagement that we imagined for a generation in which a poor, backward, developing China would essentially follow American footsteps and American instruction and take its place in an American-led international order is passed. I don't think that the efforts to try to reconstruct or resurrect anything like that make sense, so we're not going to go there. And as to looking forward, this is gonna be a fierce rivalry. It's gonna be a necessary partnership. 

What means real war? So go back to World War II, during which 50 million people were killed, which is just so unimaginable.  The physical consequence of a full-scale war between the US and China could actually kill every last Chinese and every last American. Anybody who survived later would say these people were out of their minds.

Fortunately, there's nobody in the Pentagon who believes that war with China is a good idea, not one single person, I believe it's not a single person in the PLA who believes that war with the US would be a good idea. But the societies need to understand this. And then even the fact the two parties understand that war is not possible, except if you're just suicidal, even then that doesn't mean war can't happen. Because some spiral of reactions pulls you somewhere we don't want to go. So that creates a compelling reason for Americans and Chinese at all levels to be talking about dangers that could get out of control and asking, what can we do about this cooperatively with respect to - what can we do about North Korea? What can we do about Taiwan differences? What can we do about patrols in the South China Sea or the East China Sea. 

(Source: Center for China and Globalization)

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