Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

Trapped in the Bipolar Trap

Feb 15 , 2016
  • Meicen Sun

    Ph.D. student of international relations, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Hidden Opportunity Cost for Making Cold War-Based Predictions for U.S.-China Relations and the Asia-Pacific

By Meicen Sun  & Yoshifumi Ide

The current thinking toward China is plagued with pseudo-realism, often revolving around the so-called “Thucydides Trap” – the (near) inevitability of war between a rising power and an existing hegemon. With China being a “rising challenger” to the U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, the U.S. needs to preemptively maintain American superiority such as through writing rules when the issue or region in question is still “up for grabs.” In actuality, what many self-identified “realist” scholars do is in fact make predictions about China based on what the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. This is understandable. As the most recent experience of bipolarity, the Cold War provides a convenient example for the U.S. to consult when dealing with China. Such convenience comes at a price, however. Relying on the experience with the USSR to formulate policies toward China assumes the two cases are similar in more ways than are warranted.

The dissimilarity is two fold. First and more obviously, the “units” – China and the USSR, differ significantly. In particular, China’s relations with its neighbors in East Asia pose a unique set of challenges and, often left unexamined, opportunities. Second and less obviously, the international “systems” in question also differ in crucial ways. Technologies have not merely brought about changes in how wars are fought. They have also changed the way people interact on a day-to-day basis. These two factors render the traditional “bipolar” line of thinking incomplete at best and misguided at worst. Importantly, being trapped in this elegant and erroneous framework of the Thucydides trap prevents thinking about the more viable solutions that exist to managing volatility in the Asia-Pacific. For one example, persistent cultural lines within East Asia remain heavily eclipsed by a narrow focus on hard power distribution. An enormous amount of cultural capital remains untapped for its potential in collective identity construction. Success in constructing a new Asian identity will not only strengthen cooperation in the short run, but also weaken the appeal of military contestation over time. Such a construction will not be effective, however, unless it assumes decisively new forms. This calls for a redefinition of what “institutions” entail in our current time. The trilateral and quadrilateral meetings on East Asian security hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy provide illuminating lessons on these important issues.[i]

East Asia: A false security dilemma

The issue of security dilemma is a perennial theme to East Asia. At the NCAFP trilateral meeting, several American participants iterated what U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter later saidat the Shangri-La Dialogue, that China had exceeded other countries in its development in South China Sea. Chinese participants, on the other hand, emphasized such development as being reactive to that of the other countries. In a similar vein, on Sino-Japanese relations, opinions split on the significance of Japan’s recently passed security billwhich allows it to, for the first time, come to the aid of another country even without itself being attacked. While Japanese participants stressed the rise of China and a nuclear North Korea to which the security bill was largely a response, Chinese participants pointed to the Japanese government’s unsatisfactory redress of historical issues, and to the strengthening of U.S.-Japan alliance as being not the effect but the cause of China’s own military development.

Calling these conflicts of security interests “security dilemmas” is convenient, clever, and wrong. In contrast to U.S-Soviet rivalry, rivalry in the Asia-Pacific is driven as much by strategic mistrust as by grossly misaligned perceptions of what constitutes the “status quo” in the first place. One scholar, Samuel Kim, perceptively points out that unlike most in the West who associates crises with a “high threat with a short response time,” Beijing sees them as “recurrent and protracted” rather than as something that demands prompt attention.[ii] Moreover, China tends to conceptualize “world order” not in terms of peace but in terms of perceived justice. Peace or order should only come as a “happy byproduct” when the perceived injustice in the world is eliminated, not as an end in itself.[iii]

Such a worldview, which is very much at variance with the order-oriented worldview assumed by advocates of the Thucydides trap, has three important implications for crisis management in the Asia-Pacific: First, China might allow stable ambiguity to simmer for longer than what would otherwise be considered as “safe.” Second, China might be more inclined to see instability as symptomatic of unresolved substantive issues, which it sees as of greater concern. Lastly, what many “Thucydides trappers” assume to be the goal of both sides is in fact not self-preservation, but hegemony. The absurdity in theses like John Mearsheimer’s that argue all nations ultimately strive for hegemony has already been refuted many times over, but the contagion of such theses remains ubiquitous. Works like Kim’s serve as a timely reminder that the world seen from an “underdog perspective from below” looks very different from a “topdog perspective from above.”[iv] Self-preservation most certainly does not translate into hegemony except for those already situated in such a position.

This difference in worldviews has far more than one downstream consequence. Territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas reflect not only the non-alignment of what China and other countries consider as their legitimate territories, but also how the sides see as the legitimate avenue for resolving such conflicts. Lip service to international law such as UNCLOS, for instance, does not equate a concrete effort made in this direction. The reality is that countries in East Asia retain much idiosyncrasyin their respective approaches to dispute settlement under international law. In the meantime, the term “status quo” is used as a translated term in both the Chinese language (现状) and the Japanese language (現状維持, if not the phonetic translation ステータス・クオ). This seemingly trivial fact is once again a reminder that even just to think in terms of a “status quo” – something that most in the West take for granted, forces one to adopt a strictly binary concept of either passively accepting the current state or aggressively trying to revise it. When such learning is still ongoing among the East Asian countries, simply labeling whatever situation in question as a “security dilemma” exacerbates the conflict by politicizing what is at least in part a cultural adaptation in progress, and by pushing both sides to the more aggressive end of the binary spectrum.

The only thing constant about the balance of power in East Asia has been its fluctuation. Participants at the trilateral meeting observe that this changing balance of power has produced anxiety on part of all three countries: The U.S. is concerned mostly about the “erosion of the largely unchallenged regional dominance” it has long since enjoyed; Japan is worried about “American staying power and the potential for retrenchment by the U.S.” in the face of China’s rise; China, meanwhile, is pessimistic about a potential “combination of U.S. and Japanese power” to contain it. To sensibly channel such anxiety into peaceful outcomes demands thinking beyond the military. The vibrancy of functional trilateral coordination among South Korea, Japan and China, as noted by one Korean participant at the quadrilateral meeting, should be further capitalized to establish what he calls a “new Asian identity.” Cultural idiosyncrasies hold as much peril as promise. There is much more to regional institutions than the AIIB and the TPP.

Identity construction: A new institutional approach

Deep-rooted ideologies and entrenched cognitive biases have caused tension among East Asian countries, but many such ideologies are also shared and can be explored constructively. Strategic cultures are malleable, as education, mass media and social media form the three principal pillars to shaping the public perception. One Japanese participant at the quadrilateral meeting, for example, illustrates the role of education with evidence from his recent research. The study finds that among the younger population in Japan, greater education correlates with a lower likelihood of identifying China as an enemy. These critical complexities, if duly appreciated, will help stem the furious flame of nationalism and shift the public attention from conflicts to commonalities. Countries in East Asia must tackle obstinate issues such as the Japanese history textbook controversies by first problematizing them. One crucial way is to have educational exchanges early and often. Intellectual exchange at the university level, while undoubtedly necessary, does little to mitigate prejudices already formed since the primary and secondary levels. A regional Track-II forum for those in the education sector to openly discuss each country’s primary and secondary curricula, for example, would help crack open the black boxes in which nationalist curricula are formulated.

Similarly, regional platforms have a powerful role to play in both mass media and social media. In a separate piece, one of us pointed to the need to recognize mobile apps as an efficacious tool for bridging the ideological gap by way of a virtual regional platform. For one example, one can hardly imagine the volume of dialogue that could occur across countries in East Asia should there be an app that facilitates direct communication across Chinese, Japanese and Korean, whether via an embedded translator or inter-platform messaging capabilities between WeChat, Line and KakaoTalk. Such a virtual regional platform would primarily benefit the younger population who has greater influence over the region’s future. It would also allow these young users to bypass the media and exchange opinions directly.

George Kennan’s famous long telegram already shows that good realists do not reject international institutions, but utilize them rationally and responsibly. The NCAFP meeting outcomes reaffirm the distinctive, stabilizing role of multilateral institutions. In addition to security-focused Track-II dialogues we need more non-security Track-II dialogues in face of the region’s pressing, multifaceted security issues. Importantly, multilateral cooperative and collective security frameworks do coexist, which effectively expands the menu of options for conflict resolution. While regional institutions in the traditional sense are clearly proliferating in East Asia, institutions in our current time extend beyond guns and butter. As with problem-solving in other instances, escaping the so-called Thucydides trap has to occur on a level above that from which the trap has allegedly risen. Short of genuine efforts at confidence-building on the individual level, any attempt at forging lasting stability on the state level would be quixotic.


[i] All meeting-related citations come from the official NCAFP trilateral report “The Changing Balance of Power in the Asia-Pacific and Its Impact on the U.S., Japan and China” by Andrew Oros and Donald Zagoria, and the quadrilateral report “A U.S.-China-Republic of Korea-Japan Quadrilateral Dialogue” by Scott Snyder and Darcie Draudt. The authors are grateful to the NCAFP for these documents.

[ii] Samuel S. Kim, China, the United Nations, and World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1979, 58, emphasis original.

[iii] Kim, 92.

[iv] Ibid.

You might also like
Back to Top