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Foreign Policy

Three Scenarios for the Thucydides Trap

Aug 23, 2018

Graham Allison, a prominent Harvard professor, made a rather pessimistic prediction concerning China-US relations. Against the backdrop of trade tensions, he posited that there is little hope for the two nations to avoid the “Thucydides Trap” – the term he coined for a nearly-inevitable conflict between an established power and a rising one.
As things stand, there is no knowing how Professor Allison’s prediction will turn out. However, one thing is certain: US perception of and attitude towards China is undergoing the most profound change since China’s reform and opening-up was launched 40 years ago. Since 2016, both policymakers and academics have been arguing about a tipping point in China-US relations. This was driven by the question-- with China gaining ascendancy, has the conventional dominant power versus emerging power relationship changed at its core? The Chinese academic circle is also keen on the topic, but the interest fades out a bit since the Trump administration came into office. The Chinese academic circle is also drawn to the topic, but their interest has waned since the Trump administration came into office.

As the late Lee Kwan Yew rightly forewarned, the US cannot imagine the emergence of another country of equal strength. The rise of China is a reality that the United States must accept, particularly in light of the 50-year development road map announced after the 19th Party Congress. The US will have to reexamine its policy towards China in the next 10 years, namely, how they wish to engage China as the country embraces its “two centenary goals” of national rejuvenation.

The change in the dynamic of the bilateral relationship, as some characterize it, is only partly caused by Donald Trump. It is also a manifestation of Allison’s theory of the Thucydides Trap which is bound to catch up with the two countries at some point. Even though the original Thucydides Trap led to The Peloponnesian war and, in turn changes in the international power dynamic, this result is not inevitable. While there is no denying that the US and the Soviet Union were mired in a Thucydides trap-style rivalry, they avoided outright conflict. And this prove to be valuable lesson for the current strained relations between Washington and Beijing. Tensions between an incumbent power and an emerging power primarily play out in one of the following three scenarios.

Scenario 1: Prolonged and full-bore competition in multiple areas until a clear winner emerges. The Cold War offers a prime example of this scenario. The two competing powers were at loggerheads with each other due to rival ideologies and national security concerns, and the episode shaped the world as we know it.

Scenario 2: Partial but intense conflict confined to some specific area such as territorial sovereignty or trade. This is followed by a period of relative calm and stability.

Scenario 3: there is minor friction between the two powers across multiple areas for a prolonged period of time, but this does not end in direct conflict due to some limiting factor. Rather, the balance of power shifts gradually and quietly. A case in point is the US eclipsing Britain in power in the early 20th century. In this scenario, the importance of the relative strength of the two nations becomes secondary to some emerging third party or other global security threat.

That said, there is no definite answer as to which pattern China versus US competition would follow. Or they might even blaze a new trail in big power relations. Too disprove the inevitability of the Thucydides Trap, China and the US would have to beat a new path to conflict resolution and spare the world of the horrors of trans-continental war. Graham Allison pointed out in his book Destined for War that predictability and stability are central to the management of China US relations. But as things stand now, both factors are missing and it is compounded by some serious unanswered questions. It is unpredictable as to how the US will react to a rising China. Will the US seek to contain China on all fronts, or merely seek to influence China’s rise only to the extent of making it manageable for the US? On the other hand, stability in bilateral ties is dictated by how each of the two responds to domestic challenges. If both believe that external pressure is the main threat to economic growth or government authority, then the prospects of bilateral relations would be rendered more unpredictable.

Of the three, the final scenario presents the optimal solution. With it, however, China has to be prepared to manage possible friction in its relations with the US. In the context of full-scale conflict under scenario one, the current trade conflict is actually preferable. As they say, everything is relative.

We should therefore take comfort in the fact that both countries have the wisdom not to allow their trade dispute to spillover in other areas of their relationship. But the US side would have to take extra care in keeping a lid on this as the mercurial Trump could, as has happened on more than one occasion without any provocation, suddenly explode on his Twitter with wild allegations and threats. Let us hope that the adults in the White House would act as a moderating force as and when the occasion calls for them to do so.

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