Has the Thucydidean Trap Already Sprung on China and the US?


Even as the U.S. and China put on happy faces for their annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, recent articles in U.S. newspapers suggest that the relationship has taken a major (and perhaps irreversible) turn for the worse.

At the New York Times, Jane Perlez cites Chinese and American sources who agree that Xi Jinping is making decisions almost unilaterally, according to his vision for China’s future. And Xi’s “Chinese dream,” according to Perlez, means moving “to challenge American primacy in the Asia-Pacific region and establish a China-centric alternative.” Xi’s aggressive moves and U.S. pushback have soured cooperation on major issues to the extent that there’s little optimism for progress at this week’s S&ED.

Over at The Washington Post, Simon Denyer paints a similarly gloomy picture. Denyer outlines the strategic insecurities between the two countries, as China sees a growing web of U.S. containment and Washington believes Beijing has its sights set on an unchallenged position as regional hegemon. “There have been more intense crises in U.S.-China relations, including the fallout from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters, but none, perhaps, as fundamental and structural as this,” Denyer writes.

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For years, analysts and scholars have theorized about the looming “Thucydidean Trap” awaiting China and the United States. The numerous historical examples of a rising power clashing with an established power have prompted comparisons of the modern Asia-Pacific with pre-World War I Europe or even with Athens and Sparta, the original victims of the trap described by the Greek historian Thucydides. China and the U.S. both pledged to avoid the historical pattern, in part by creating a “new type of great power relations.” But the current atmosphere suggests that the Thucydidean trap may have already sprung.

Graham Allison, Director of the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, outlined the classic Thucydidean trap back in 2012: Athens’ “dramatic rise shocked Sparta, the established land power on the Peloponnese. Fear compelled its leaders to respond. Threat and counter-threat produced competition, then confrontation and finally conflict.” Allison emphasized the “two crucial variables: rise and fear.” A change to the international order in inevitable as China rises, Allison argued, the only question is whether leaders and societies alike can make the “huge adjustments” necessary to pave the way for a peaceful transition.

Two years later, neither China nor the U.S. seems particularly interested in actually taking the steps necessary to forge a “new type great power relationship,” though they both famously pledged to do so at the summit between Obama and Xi last summer. Instead, few steps have been taken to address the fear and insecurities on both sides that lie at the heart of the Thucydidean Trap.

For China, true commitment to a “new type” of power transition would mean going out of its way to reassure its neighbors about its peaceful intentions. Beijing often argues that it has a right to build up its military and press its territorial claims. While this is true, such actions are incompatible with China’s stated wish to reassure its neighbors. In other words, China should focus less on its past and more on its present as proof of China’s devotion to peace.

The re-shelving of China’s territorial disputes, following Deng Xiaoping’s recommendation, would make it clear to China’s neighbors that shelving the disputes was actually a sign of goodwill, rather than a way to kill time as China built up its military prowess. More transparency about that same military prowess would also carry a lot of weight.

Xi seems to have decided on the opposite tactic, opting instead to use China’s increasing military (as well as economic and diplomatic) clout to push on long-standing territorial claims. This has fostered exactly the sort of fear that Thucydides warned about, as China’s neighbors turn to the U.S. for support. Washington itself is also worried that China’s rise poses a fundamental threat to its interests in the region, from alliance relationships to the vital trade corridors in the South China Sea.

The U.S., in turn, has done its part in nudging its relationship with China further towards conflict. The “rebalance to Asia” has essentially become synonymous with increased military force: more U.S. marines in Australia, a new defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines, and support for Japan to stretch its defense limitations. Along with this is tacit support for the rival claimants in China’s territorial disputes. It’s not hard to see where China gets the idea that the U.S. is trying to contain its rise.

To help ease tensions on a structural level, the U.S. would need to roll back its emphasis on increasing a military presence in the region. More fundamentally, the U.S. needs to accept that China will play a greater role in deciding regional and global affairs than at any time in modern history. That will be a difficult transition both politically and socially — there are few Americans alive today who remember a time when the U.S. wasn’t either vying for the title of sole superpower or enjoying the fruits of its victory.

The actions outlined above are radical — which is exactly why they haven’t happened. If the peaceful restructuring of global power were easy, the world would have seen it happen far more frequently. Despite their avowed commitment to avoiding the Thucydidean Trap, neither the U.S. nor China has given any signs that they are willing to deviate from the classic pattern of a security dilemma, upping the ante tit-for-tat. Certainly, at this stage neither side will want to take de-escalatory action unless it’s given a clear sign of goodwill from the other counterpart. The best we can hope for in the short-term are modest confidence-building measures, including increased military transparency on both sides and a serious commitment to avoid provocative actions.

Even if both governments are willing to consider altering their policies, domestic resistance in both China and the U.S. will be fierce. Accommodating a rival will leave leaders open to accusations of foreign policy weakness. There are extremists on both sides who believe that war is preferable to giving an inch in the contest for regional dominance. The leaders in Beijing and Washington are wise enough to know better. The question, then, is whether they are bold enough to take real action to check the current slide toward conflict.

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