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Graham Allison: Destined for War; Can America and China escape Thucydides’s Trap

Two centuries ago, Napoleon warned: “Let China sleep; when she wakes, she will shake the world.” Today China has awakened, and the world is beginning to shake. The book is about tension between China and America. And a question if they can avoid Thucydides’s trap. Trap is about rising power and existing one, like tension between rising Athens and Sparta. It was about tension and fear rise of Athens instilled in Sparta and how that made war inevitable. When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception.

We can get lessons from history that there are no permanent winners and losers. Complexity of causation in human affairs has vexed philosophers, jurist and social sciences. Thucydides points to structural factors that are more important than sparks that set events in motions. Over the past five hundred years, in sixteen casers a major rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. In twelve of those, the result was war.

Lee Kuan Yew was a founder and long-servicing leader of Singapore. He was one of the first to see China’s true nature – and its full potential. Chinese leaders looked to Singapore as a laboratory in not only economics but also political development. Every Chinese leader from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping has called him “mentor”, a term of ultimate respect in Chinese culture. With China you cannot pretend, that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.

In 2011 Hillary Clinton announced redirecting Washington’s attention and resources from the Middle East to Asia.

China has already surpassed the United States and the largest producer of ships, steel, aluminum, furniture, clothing, textiles, cell phones and computers. China has become the manufacturing powerhouse of the world. In 2014 estimates that China economy (17.6 trillion USD) surpassed U.S. (17.4), measured as PPP (purchasing power parity. Many Americans imaging that economic primacy is an unalienable right, to the point that it has become part of their national identity.

Since the Great Recession, 40 percent of all the growth around the world has occurred in just one country: China. World Bank president Robert Zoellick noted in 2010, that between 1981 and 2004, China succeeded in lifting more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty. Chinese families typically save over 30 percent of their disposable income. Chinese shoppers bought half of the world’s luxury goods sold in 2015. Chinese are more successful also in child education. In 2015 Tsinghua University passed MIT in the U.S. News and World Report ranking and become number-one university in the world for engineering. The fastest supercomputer is also in China since June 2013. China is also building their military capabilities.

China primary conducts foreign policy through economics because, to put it bluntly, it can. Geo-economics is when you use economic instruments to achieve geopolitical goals. Concept exploited by Robert Blackwill and Jennifer Harris. Beijing stunned Washington in 2013 by establishing its own competitive institution to IMF, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China Development Bank is the biggest financer of international development projects. Through the »Silk Road Economic Belt« and »21st-Century Maritime Silk Road« – collectively known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR) – China is constructing a network of highways, fast railroads, airports, ports, pipelines, power transmission lines and fiber-optic cables across Eurasia.

Athens vs. Sparta

Thucydides was original “applied historian” talking about events so that others will learn from them. As Churchill put it: “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”[1]

Sparta is even today symbol of ultimate military culture. Athens on the other hand were trading nation and proud of their culture. They also introduced democracy. The Persian invasion (490 BCE) forced Greeks to come together and Athens took main role in victory over them. From that point on, Athens expanded their empire with alliances. Sparta on the other hand was more focused on regional dominance and making sure to control Helot rebellion at home. In 446 BCE they signed Thirty Years’ Peace agreement. But agreement did not resolve the underlying causes of tension. It merely put them on hold. The spark cam in 435 BCE, a local conflict between Corinth (Spartan ally) and Corcyra. Spartan hawks were stronger and Spartan Assembly voted for war. Even friendship between Pericles and Archidamus II, could not prevent war.

When states repeatedly fail to act in what appears to be their true national interest, it is often because their policies reflect necessary compromises among parties within their government rather than a single coherent vision. Pericles was therefore as much politician as a statesman. His influence was limited to his power to persuade. Thucydides identifies three primary drivers fueling dynamic that lead to war: interests, fear and honor. National interests are plain enough. Fear is Thucydides’s one-word reminder that facts about structural realities are not the whole story. Objective conditions have to be perceived by human beings – and the lenses through which we see them are influenced by emotions. But beyond interests and perceptions lies a third ingredient Thucydides calls honor.

Five hundred years of conflicts

Readers who wonder whether a trade conflict could escalate into nuclear war should pay careful attention to the curious path that led Japan and United States to Pearl Harbor. Washington had attempted to use economic instruments, such as financial and trade sanctions, to coerce Japan to stop regional aggression, including against China. The road to Pearl Harbor had actually begun a half century earlier when America its first pivot to Asia. Japan was winning wars against Russia in 1904, China in 1931 when they invaded the Chinese mainland. Proclaiming »Asia for the Asians« in 1933 Tokyo announced a »Japanese Monroe Doctrine«. Japan’s sense of urgency, anxiety, victimhood and vindictiveness deepens our understanding of rising power syndrome.

Conflict between France as ruling power and Germany in rising power started with Prussia’s victories over Denmark in 1864 and Austria in 1866. France was surprised with quick rise in industrial and military power of Prussia. Bismarck stipulated French fear with proposal to place German prince on the Spanish throne. Bismarck provides textbook example of exploitation of the ruling power syndrome: taking advantage of exaggerated fears, insecurities and dread of changes in the status quo to provoke reckless response.

England versus Dutch republic was conflict between power of the Dutch Republic in the first half of the seventeenth century, when they emerge as Europe’s leading maritime power that dominated trade, shipping and finance and London, that in 1651 passed the first Navigation Act, that give authority to trade in English colonies to English vessels only.

In the early sixteenth century, the growing power of the House of Hapsburg threatened French preeminence in Europe. Tensions came to a head when King Charles I of Spain challenged King Francis I for the position of Holy Roman emperor.

Britain versus Germany

Churchill wrote before first WW that if you want peace, you need to prepare for war. For England that meant to build their naval supremacy against Germany. No British government could tolerate a challenge to its naval dominion or an attempt to overturn the Continental’s balance of power. The Great War’s development followed the same bleak pattern – and many of the same dynamics – as other Thucydidean conflict over the centuries. Britain was beset by anxieties typical of many ruling powers; German was driven by the ambition and indignation characteristic of many up-and-comers. In 1905 King Edward VII asked government why they are so hostile against Germany. Replied came in The Crowe Memorandum (Eyre Crowe). Main message of memorandum was: Germany’s intentions were irrelevant; its capabilities were what mattered.

London worried about four rivals in particular after their decline at the end of 19. century – Russia, France, United States and Germany. US economy overtook Britain’s (not the whole empire) in 1870. Washington become more aggressive. But London didn’t reply as strong as they reply to Germany, company on their borders and with growing power. Germany was growing quickly, but they feel they were blocked by other great forces and they feel that to be unjust. Germany GDP surpassed around 1910. Under Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to change that, replacing Bismarck, lapse a treaty with Russia and forcing on creating Weltpolitik, to find a place for Germany on international map.

The main source of power has been on the sea at that time (Alfred T. Mahan – The Influence of Sea Power upon History), so everybody was trying to build as strong naval power as possible. Germany was careful not to get into fight with the British before its fleet was strong enough. Britain was realizing that they can’t fight all fronts. With France they created Entente Cordiale in 1904, not to be dragged into Russian-Japan war. After Russia signed agreement with Britain, they together form the Triple Entente.

Tensions between England and Germany was growing with widening of the Kiel Canal and with development of new types of vessels like Dreadnought. But arms races don’t inevitably produce conflict. Britain was wining fight for naval supremacy, but fear didn’t go away. On the other hand, Germany saw growth in Russia power as a threat for them self.

The parallels between this case and contemporary challenge between USA and China are inevitably inexact, but still unsettling. Like Germany, China feels it has been cheated out of its rightful place by nations that were strong when it was weak. Like Germany, China has the will and the means to change the status quo. We should pray that we can avoid one day echoing Chancellor Bethman Hollweg’s pathetic answer on the cause of Europe’s war: “Ah, if we only knew.”[2]

China versus USA

Americans enjoy lecturing Chinese to be “more like us”. Perhaps they should be more careful what they wish for. When Theodore Roosevelt took presidency, USA took a role as policeman of Western Hemisphere and intervene nine times in the seven years. Against Spain to acquire Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, supported establishment of Panama (exclusion from Colombia) and in some other cases. The US proved more interested in using its newfound economic and military powers to reinforce its growing influence than to expand their borders. Their intervention was built on virile conception of international altruism. The missionary, the merchant and the soldier may each have a part to play in destruction and the consequent uplifting of the people.

Enforcing doctrine set forth by James Monroe in 1823, was possible for US when they started to build strong army. They draw Spain out of Cuba. They clash with Germany when Germany tried to force debt-repayment from Venezuela in 1902. They finish the European dream of building a canal from Atlantic to Pacific. They helped Panama to break free from Colombia who control it since 1821. It happened in 1903 and a French businessman Philippe Bunau-Varilla negotiated a treaty that gave the US rights »in perpetuity« to the future canal in return for 10 million USD and 250.000 USD annual fee.

In northern border they faced dispute with British Colombia for border setting with Alaska (bought in 1867). British Colombia joined Canada in 1871. When gold was discovered in Yukon in Canada 1897, the routes from ocean to it, was controlled by US.

President Xi Jinping wants to make China great again. Xi was schooled in the struggle to survive the madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Xi emerged from the upheaval with what Lee called »iron in his soul«. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortune or sufferings to affect his judgment.

Making China great against means:

  • Returning China to the predominance in Asia it enjoyed before West intruded.
  • Reestablishing control over the territories of »greater China«: Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan.
  • Recovering its historic sphere of influence along its borders and in the adjacent seas so that others give it the deference great nations have always demanded.
  • Commanding the respect of other great powers in the council of the world.

China means middle kingdom, but middle kingdom between heaven and earth.

China is one of the oldest civilizations. Its history is long. So, for China, the military functioned as a last resort. China expanded by cultural osmosis and not missionary zeal. Millennia of Chinese dominance ended abruptly in the first half of the nineteenth century when the Quing Dynasty came fact-to-face with the power of an industrializing, imperial Western Europe. The exhausted Quing administrators held out as long as they could, but in the 1912 the disgraced dynasty collapsed, plunging the country into chaos. Century of humiliation was enough for every Chinese to learn a lesson of: never forget and never again.

XI was a son of trusted communist Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun. In 1962 paranoid Mao arrested his father and Xi was send to countryside for »reeducation«. He chooses to survive by becoming redder than red. As his power grow, he was always focusing on economy, finding a way to support local entrepreneurs like Jack Ma.

Xi China dream is about:

  • Revitalizing the Party, cleansing it of corruption.
  • Reviving Chinese nationalism and patriotism to instill pride.
  • Engineering a third economic revolution, to keep sustaining high rates of growth.
  • Reorganizing and rebuilding China’s military.

But he is a man in hurry. Some of the challenges he is facing are demographics, the challenge of fostering innovations, social stability in downsizing state-owned companies, energy demand versus the environment risk. Xi has flouted a cardinal rule of political survival: never state an unambiguous objective and a date in the same sentence. His »Two Centennial Goals are: build a moderately prosperous society by 2021 (date of 100 years of Party) and China to become a modernized, fully developed, rich and powerful nation by 2049 (100 year of People Republic).

But for Xi the key to running thigs well in China and realizing the China Dream lies in the Party. Socialism with Chinese characteristic, this is China’s historical inheritance.  Xi led a revival of classical Chinese thought, to build national self-confidence. Few in China would say that political freedoms are more important than reclaiming China’s international standing and national pride.

For economic growth to continue China needs to: accelerate the transition to domestic consumption-driven demand; restructure or close inefficient state-owned enterprises; strengthen the base of science and technology to advance innovation; promote Chinese entrepreneurship; avoid unsustainable levels of debt.

In 2013 Xi announced OBOR (one belt, one road) initiative. Its goal is a transportation and technology network spanning Eurasia and nearly all countries bordering the Indian Ocean. With that they will have better control on Eurasia (World Island as named by Halford Mackinder).

Chinese leaders are grateful for America’s role in stability and growth of Asia and China after WWII, but they believe now is the time for America to move away from a region. South China Sea is a territory where these tensions are playing out. Xi wants to match America full-spectrum technological dominance of US army. But just because China wants to be able to fight and win, does not mean that it wants to fight.

Main difference between two super-powers are civilization based. Huntington defined civilization as an entity that constitutes the most expansive level of cultural organization. For him civilization is the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species. Differences do not necessarily mean conflict, and conflict does not necessarily mean violence. Main differences of Confucian and Western societies are: relationship to authority, relationship to confrontation and competition, power of collective versus individual. Despite many differences, the US and China are alike in at least one respect: both have extreme superiority complexes.  Another very important difference is their time horizon. Americans will always try to solve everything now; China time perspective is much longer. They always look for chronic rather than acute and important than urgent. China is patient, America a problem-solver.

Americans urge other powers to accept a “rule-based international order”. But through Chinese eyes, this appears to be an order in which Americans make the rules, and others obey the orders. Chinese approach to harmony is through hierarchy and they see everything as connected. For them war is primary psychological and political; military campaigns are a secondary concern. Chinese seek victory not in a decisive battle but through incremental moves designed to gradually improve their position.

China’s leaders believe that America’s grand strategy for dealing with China involves five to’s: to isolate it, to contain it, to diminish it, to internally divide it and to sabotage its leadership.

So how close to war US and China are. War occur even when leaders are determined to avoid them. Some of the conflicts were China did engage were: Korean war in 1950, fights over Sino-Soviet border in 1969, Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996, China Seas today. Those four cases suggest when China may use military force. When we estimate possibilities of war, we should be careful of potential sparks. Some potential accelerants are dispute over islands between Japan and China, antisatellite weapons, cyberspace, compromising the confidentiality of sensitive networks, Taiwan move towards independence.

Potential conflict areas are: Taiwan, third party reaction (intervention for allies), North Korea, from economic to military conflict.

Taiwan case is interesting since under 1979 The Taiwan Relations Act US is committed to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. When Taiwan announced that they will apply for UN membership, China reacted to it. Since Taiwan is an island, it depends a lot on import and needs stabile access to it. But One China policy sees Taiwan as China’s territory.

Avoiding war

But war is not the only option. Escaping Thucydides’s Trap is not just a matter of theory. In the last five hundred years at least four times, such a confrontation didn’t end up in a war.

Spain versus Portugal in late fifteenth century. Portugal ruled the sea in most of the 15th century. When Spain power grew, tensions grew also. But they both accepted higher authority, the representative of God on Earth, Pope Alexander VI. and they agree to sign Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, to divide interest sphere in eastern part – Portugal (Brazil) and western part Spain. Acceptance of higher authority is one way to avoid direct conflict.

Germany versus Britain and France today. Determined not to repeat patterns of international politics that led to wars, EU was established. Showing that if states can be embedded in larger economic, political and security institutions that constrain historically normal behaviors.

United States versus England in early twentieth century. England realized that cooperation brings more benefit than competition. Wily statesmen make virtue of necessity – and distinguish needs from wants. Timing is crucial and cultural commonalities can help prevent conflict.

Soviet Union versus US in cold war. USSR economy and military was growing fast after the war. US created a sense that this is the fight for which political system will prevail. In order to defend US way, they created new international order: Marshall Plan, World Bank, IMF, NATO and Japan alliance, The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. But presence of nuclear weapon also changed a moment, since MAD (mutual assured destruction) moment really does make all-out war madness. So hot war is hard to justify, but on the other hand leaders of nuclear super-powers most nonetheless be prepared to risk a war they cannot win. If we connect that with problem of economic interdependence in globalized world, then hot war is even more problematic.

But in order to control environment of potential conflict, powers should be aware of potential alliances that can drag them into conflict and have in mind that domestic performance is decisive.

Where to

China resurrection is a fact. Can the US thrive in a world in which China writes the rules? Applied History is an emerging discipline that attempts to illuminate current predicaments and choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues. There are three questions about the rise of China that America should think about:

  • What is the US-China competition like?
  • How did we arrive at what we now call the “China challenge?
  • How do foreign stakeholders perceive the same evolution of events?

Main US strategy for China is “engage but hedge”. This is flawless according to Kuan Yew since: China will not become democratic, second comparing China to Japan and Germany, misses the fact that the latter two were first defeated in a hot war. China will insist on being accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West.

Reviewing strategic options, there are four main ones from accommodation to regime change or even splintering of the country.

Accommodation is a serious effort to adapt to a new balance of power by adjusting relations with a serious competitor.

Undermining is a strategy to foment regime change within the country or even divide it against itself.

Negotiating a long peace.

Redefine the relationship. This was already proposed by Xi to Obama, but it was rejected by Americans. Four major threats that both parties can fight together are: nuclear Armageddon, nuclear anarchy, global terrorism (especially threatened by Islamic jihadism) and climate change.

In order for US leaders to find the best way to cope with new reality, they should understand four core ideas:

  • Clarify vital interests.
  • Understand what China is trying to do.
  • Do strategy.
  • Make domestic challenges central.

Shakespeare was right: our destiny lies “not in our stars, but in ourselves.”


[1] In the book on page 28

[2] In the book on page 85