One of the best ways to capture the prevailing geopolitical zeitgeist is by pinning down the latest cliché among strategic thinkers. Over the past five years, the term “Thucydides trap” has come to dominate the discourse about the most consequential bilateral relationship in the 21st century, namely between the United States and China.
The term has been popularized by Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, mainly thanks to his oft-cited “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?” (2017). In his book, Allison essentially argues that the U.S. and China are a modern Sparta and Athens, caught in the same hegemonic rivalry that the two ancient Greek city-states found themselves in during the destructive Peloponnesian War.
The two superpowers are trapped in a potentially explosive situation, Allison argues, whereby “a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power” and “standard crises that would otherwise be contained” could quickly trigger “a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen.” In short, even seemingly trivial disputes could spiral into full-scale confrontation between the U.S. and China.
The rhetorical fireworks and strategic deadlock in the Alaska summit last month somehow confirmed the intensity of bilateral tensions between the two superpowers. Despite being led by veteran diplomats, the two sides struggled to even agree on a joint statement, as they sparred over a whole host of hot-button issues with no signs of compromise on the immediate horizon.
Upon close scrutiny, however, it’s crystal clear that there are more than enough reasons to avoid a “New Cold War” in the 21st century. Around the world, there is a profound recognition of not only the necessity of preventing a destructive global conflict, but also forging a new Sino-American ‘grand bargain,’ which will facilitate global recovery amid a raging pandemic and a festering climate change.
Coalition of the Unwilling
The last the world witnessed a “Cold War”, it was a product of radically different circumstances. It was born out of the Second World War, which left the United States and the Soviet Union victors of a global conflict that devastated much of Western Europe and East Asia.
By the end of Second World War, a largely unscathed America dominated close to half of global economic output. The Soviet Union, which suffered as many as 27 million casualties by some estimates, occupied much of Central-Eastern Europe, including portions of Berlin.
Thus, an economically dominant Washington and militarily formidable Moscow were in an unprecedented situation to divide a war-torn world into their own respective spheres of influence.
And to be clear, the so-called “Cold War”, given the absence of direct conflict between the two nuclear-armed superpowers, was hot and devastating in much of the post-colonial world, where proxy conflicts claimed as many as 20 million lives.
In the 21st century, however, the U.S. is no longer as economically dominant as in the immediate post-war years, nor is China militarily occupying its immediate neighbors. Therefore, neither of the two superpowers are in a position to dictate the creation of rival military blocs as in the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact.
Moreover, nations in Western Europe as well as post-colonial Asian nations are more prosperous and militarily capable than ever. And the traumatic memories of the Cold War has instilled a profound sense of independence among many nations, especially in Asia, which borne the brunt of both the Korean and Indo-China Wars.
Crucially, modern China is no Soviet Union, which was an overtly expansionist power with minimal economic footprint beyond its disparate alliances. In contrast, China is the top trading partner of almost all Asian and European countries, and is set to overhaul the global infrastructure landscape through its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
No wonder then, that practically all Southeast Asian nations, including U.S. treaty allies such as Thailand and the Philippines, are eager to maintain robust ties with China. More importantly, these nations are also actively resisting any pressure to choose between the two superpowers.
Across Southeast Asia, as in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, the priority of countless emerging markets and developing nations is to maintain optimal relations with all major powers. Thus, the U.S. will struggle to enlist much of the world in a prospective “New Cold War” with China.
It’s quite telling that even major Western European countries such as Italy and key Indo-Pacific partners such as New Zealand have defied Washington by participating in the Beijing-led BRI. In short, the U.S. will struggle to form a full-fledged anti-China alliance, as it successfully did during the Cold War against the economically marginal and geopolitically uncouth Soviet Union.
A Grand Bargain
On their side, China’s chances for building a counter-U.S. alliance are also not too promising. It’s true that China and Russia were quick to display a common front against Western sanctions on the ashes of the Alaska summit.
In addition to deepening bilateral strategic and economic ties in recent years, one can’t discount the element of Sino-Russian competition across post-Soviet nations as well as in the global arms market.
Not to mention, Russia is also dependent on expanding energy exports to NATO members, especially Germany, thus Moscow has an incentive to maintain a semblance of functioning relations with major Western nations, especially in Europe.
China itself has criticized any “Cold War mentality” in favor of rapid economic engagement with much of the world. On its part, even the Biden administration, which has warned of “extreme competition” with the Asian superpower, has acknowledged the fact that it can’t even coerce its closest into a direct conflict with China.
As the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his recent speech before NATO allies, Washington “won’t force allies into an ‘us-or-them’ choice with China”, since this seems both impractical and self-defeating.
After all, from Western Europe to Japan and Australia, all major U.S. allies dread a full-scale escalation in Sino-American rivalry, since this could torpedo decades of economic globalization and threaten relative geopolitical stability at both ends of the Eurasian landmass.
A logical way forward, therefore, is for both superpowers to focus on areas of common interest, including their pivotal role in facilitating the creation of an inclusive, stable and prosperous international order in the 21st century.
There are three key areas, where the U.S. and China could find a common ground, likely with assistance of other major powers.
The first area is international trade, whereby the Biden administration can rescind some Trump-era unilateral trade tariffs as well as targeted sanctions, especially those targeted at major Chinese companies, which have disrupted global supply chains and threaten economic recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In exchange, China can reverse its own retaliatory sanctions, especially those hurting American small business owners and farmers, as well as make certain adjustments in its “Made in China 2025” industrial policy to quell legitimate American concerns over technological theft and zero-sum economic competition.
The second area concerns the need for a coordinated global effort against the twin-challenges of COVID-19 pandemic as well as climate change. Instead of engaging in self-defeating ‘vaccine nationalism’ and zero-sum ‘vaccine diplomacy’, both superpowers can expand their assistance to the World Health Organization and global vaccine initiatives, especially for developing countries, where new COVID-19 variants have emerged due to delayed mass vaccination.
On the climate change front, the U.S. and China are moving in a promising direction, as both superpowers pledge to establish ‘carbon-neutral’ economies by the middle of the century. This should be complemented by joint assistance to climate change adaptation initiatives, which will empower the poorest and most vulnerable nations to cope with increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions.
And finally, as both superpowers dramatically expand their naval footprint in Asia’s contested waters, they should simultaneously deepen institutionalized dialogue and hotlines among their armed forces, especially their navies as well as coast guard forces, which are increasingly active across the South China Sea and the Western Pacific. With a bit of strategic wisdom, it’s more than possible to prevent another destructive Cold War in the 21st century.