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Foreign Policy

No Thucydides Trap

Oct 07 , 2015
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

On his first state visit to the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s effort to reassure the world that the Sino-U.S. relationship is on the right track was considered one of his most important achievements. The two countries believe they can avoid being caught in the so-called Thucydides trap — so long as they take care not to lay the trap for themselves — by working together to build a new model of major-power relations. By breaking away from the old-world pattern, in which the rise of a major power leads to military conflict with an established power, China and the United States can shape the future of the world.

Since the 16th century, there have been four established world powers with four rising powers challenging them: Portugal was challenged by Spain in the 16th century, Netherlands by France in the 17th century, Britain by the U.S. in the 18th century, and the U.S. by the Soviet Union in the 20th century. The assumption is that military conflicts, large or small, are hardly avoidable, and that often both the established world power and the challenger lose in the test of strength.

The U.S., today’s established world power, is in a somewhat different position. It sees itself as the winner in the Cold War and is still leading the world following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. However, the situation with China and the U.S. is different from the four previous cases, and the so-called general “rule” of such relationships has become outdated.

Thanks to globalization, the economies of China and the U.S. have become extremely inter-related. If the economy of China stagnates or slides into a recession, the U.S. economy cannot avoid being affected, and vice versa. That situation between the established world power and the rising power has never existed before. Also, both China and the U.S. have become the major contributors to the strategic balance and stability in global security. Therefore, any kind of large-scale conflict between China and the U.S., whether militarily or economic, is highly undesirable for both sides, and would not yield a winner. This reality constantly stimulates both countries to work together for win-win cooperation.

Another reason the relationship between China and the United States is a new brand of great-power relationship: the consequences that could result from a large-scale conflict or war between the two countries. With advancements in science and technology, as well as in military strategy and equipment in recent decades, the destruction inflicted in a modern large-scale war would be many times greater than in those of past centuries. The use of weapons of mass destruction in war will be even more horrible and damaging. Undoubtedly, peaceful co-existence is the best choice for China and the U.S.

Finally, the progressive understanding of international relations by President Xi Jinping is one that had not been possessed by the leaders of rising powers in the past. China is devoted to building, by mature theory and practice, a modern relationship between China and the United States that seeks a win-win scenario. No matter how strong it becomes in the future, China will never seek hegemony and spheres of influence, or engage in expansion. China does not wish to overthrow the current world system and to build another of its own, but instead seeks to work together with all the United Nations members to improve it. A more rational and just world system will be more helpful to achieving common development and lasting peace.

During President Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S., China and the United States reaffirmed their desires for mutual understanding and strategic trust, and to remove arbitrary doubts about each other. With continuous efforts by both countries, China and the U.S. could manage to avoid miscalculation and misjudgment about each other’s strategic intentions, as well as refrain from setting the so-called Thucydides trap for themselves.

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