By Clay Chandler
June 2, 2018

Are the U.S. and China “destined for war“? Harvard professor Graham Allison posed that question in a provocative book published last summer. I’ve written previously in this space about Allison’s thesis, but it seems newly relevant in light of developments over the last month, if not the last few days.

The gist of Allison’s argument is that the modern world’s two most powerful nations are stumbling into a “Thucydides Trap.” That’s Allison’s shorthand for the theory of an ancient Greek general who identified sudden, significant shifts in the relative strength of major powers as a primary cause (if not the primary cause) of military conflict. Thucydides, considered by many the world’s first true historian, floated the idea in his chronicle of the Peloponnesian Wars, the series of devastating conflicts between the two most powerful Greek city states, Athens and Sparta, in the fifth century BCE. Thucydides posited that, whatever superficial frictions and flashpoints might be blamed for hostilities between the two sides, the underlying cause of war was the frustration of leaders in the rising power, Athens, and the fear the growing strength in Athens inspired among leaders of the established power, Sparta.

Allison sees the same dynamic in conflicts between a rising England versus the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, a rising Germany versus Britain in the early 20th century, and a rising Japan versus the United States in the 1940s. In his book he argues that Thucydides’ theory perfectly explains the growing animosity between the U.S. and China. Allison doesn’t say war between the U.S. and China is inevitable. But he does argue that, “on the current trajectory, war between the U.S. and China in decades ahead is not just possible, but more likely than currently recognized.”

Allison expanded on those ideas in an appearance at the Asia Society here in Hong Kong in late April. He got a big laugh by observing that, if Hollywood were to produce a “Thucydides Trap” movie depicting the clash of the modern era’s two great powers, Central Casting couldn’t have contrived more perfect antagonists than Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. (Alec Baldwin, call your agent!) The line stuck with me, though, because in the weeks since, the two leaders have seemed to be reading almost line-for-line from the Thucydides script.

As I write this (Saturday night China time, Saturday morning in the U.S.), U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross is dining with Chinese economy czar Liu He in the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing in a last-ditch effort to forge a U.S.-China trade compromise and defuse a round of tit-for-tat trade tariffs that could affect hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods and services. The discussions seem unlikely to achieve a breakthrough given that Trump on Tuesday announced that he would proceed with tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports and introduce new limits on Chinese investments in U.S. high-tech industries. The U.S. president’s announcement came only days after his treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin declared the U.S. trade war with China to be “on hold.”

Meanwhile at a security conference in Singapore this morning, U.S. defense secretary James Mattis assailed the Chinese government for ramping up its military presence on a string of contested land outcroppings in the South China Sea, decrying the deployment of Chinese weapons there as meant for “purposes of intimidation and coercion.”

A trade war and conflict over the South China Sea are among the possible “paths to war” Allison considers in his book. Others include the collapse of North Korea, conflict involving a third party such as Korea or Japan, and a face-off over Taiwan. Every scenario remains in play.

In other ways, though, Allison’s invocation of Thucydides feels too neat. In the Peloponnesian Wars, the rising power was Athens, an expansionist, freewheeling democracy with an unbeatable maritime fleet, while the incumbent power was Sparta, ruled by an austere and conservative warrior-caste revered for its prowess in fighting on land. And yet, in Allison’s analogy, China is the modern Athens, while the U.S. is the equivalent of Sparta.

And the eventual outcome of the Peloponnesian Wars offers sobering lessons for both Xi and Trump. In the end, Athens, the rising power, was defeated, never again to regain its global preeminence. Sparta prevailed, thanks largely to the intervention of Persia, a reminder—at a time when Trump is imposing tariffs on Germany, Japan, South Korea and Canada—of the value of strategic alliances.

More China news below.

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

SPONSORED FINANCIAL CONTENT

You May Like