Can USA and China avoid the Thucydides trap?

In a recent interview with The World Post, Chinese President Xi Jinping set out his outline for the future of China and the world and why peaceful world environment is necessary to develop China in the long term. One particular significance of this interview was his usage of the term “The Thucydides Trap”.

“The Thucydides Trap” was coined by the Belfer Center Director Graham Allison whereby an established power becomes wary of an emerging power and ultimately leads to war and confrontation among them. The Greek Historian Thucydides blamed the war between Athens and Sparta on Sparta’s fear of Athens growth and its own diminishing influence and hence went to War with Athens to thwart its rise.

Even though The United States and China are the world’s largest economies, their relationship is very complex and based on mutual fear and suspicion.  China’s rapid defence modernisation coupled with increasing assertiveness with its neighbours over various territorial disputes has caused US policy makers off guard in Asia. What worries the policy makers the most is what will be the US response in case of conflict between say China/Japan or China/Philippines and to what extent will the United States go to protect its allies in the region?  Even though China advocates a multi-polar world, its actions speak differently about the role it is going to take in future. China is playing a game of cat and mouse in the region and is checking USA’s capacity to deliver in case of a conflict.

United States has clearly outlined its intention after long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that it will be concentrating on Asia with its Asia Pivot policy.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved too big a financial burden on the American economy and allowed China to leapfrog it and become the world’s largest trading nation. As the US troops withdraw from the region post 2014, the US plans to concentrate on Asia-Pacific region to check the growth and influence of China in the region. Post World War II, United States has been a dominant power in the region and most of its trade goes through this route and any effort by China to subvert its influence will be met by strong US response.

Current President Xi and Former President Hu Jintao, both laid out a vision for China’s global role in international politics wherein both Countries will form a “new type of great power relationship”. To what extent the United States is going to share power with China and what will be its impact on International geopolitics remains to be seen. Skeptics argue that confrontation between the two countries is more of a reality in the coming decades then in the past.

American foreign policy which was clearly focused on terrorism and Middle East post September 11 attacks have once again started concentrating on China after the economic recession of 2008. America’s Asia pivot is aimed clearly at China and focuses on containing it in the region without harming its interests or its allies. Japan is increasingly trying to change its pacifist Constitution in order to prep up its military in case of a conflict with China. Japan is concerned that US will not come to its rescue in case of conflict even though the US-Japan Treaty 1971 provides so and hence is becoming increasingly insecure about China’s intentions in the region. In his book On China, Henry Kissinger states that China wants a complete revamp of the current world order wherein it has greater say in the happenings around the world and is not discriminated against whereas the United States stands for the existing rule based order, freedom of navigation of seas and skies. The opaque system of Chinese decision making makes it much more difficult for America to solve disputes or tone down the tensions in case of a miscalculated Conflict.

US policy makers believe India can be a trump card against China in the Asian power dynamics. Based on the principle of democracy and rule based order, United States believes that in the long run India can become a possible alternative to China in Asia and on one on which it could depend on. India is being increasingly courted by Japan, Australia and the US to seek a dominant role in Asia Pacific to subvert Chinese influence.  However they forget that India has its own sets of problems with China and will not join any US led camp against China. India’s current focus right now is economic growth and liberalisation and lifting millions out of poverty before it can match China tooth for tooth militarily in Asia and the world.

In the last 500 years, whenever an established power has been faced with an emerging power, the result was war in 11 out of 15 cases. The US has slowly and steadily built up its largely dominant role now since 1890, when it surpassed United Kingdom as the world’s largest economy and has enforced itself as the sole World Super Power through the two World Wars and its rivalry with Soviet Union during the Cold War years. What will be the US approach to China’s rise and whether it is going to make any concessions to China remains to be seen? China on the other hand will try to gain its status as the Middle Kingdom in the Confucian concept of “All under Heaven” and regain its previous glory as the world’s largest economy prior to 1750’s.

Piyush Singh is a law student with an interest in India-China relations and nuclear law and energy. He completed his internship at the Takshashila Institution.

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