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The Thucydides Trap

Huawei, Hong Kong, Uighurs, the South China Sea, Chinese economic and military growth, “Kung Flu”, economic crisis, cyber-attacks, intellectual property theft, trade wars, sanctions, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping… are all combining to raise the spectre that the world is marching eyes wide open into the Thucydides Trap.

What, you may ask is the Thucydides Trap? It is a political/military term coined by American academic Graham Allison in 2012 to warn against the inevitability of war between China and America.

It was based on the work of the Greek historian Thucydides who explained that the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) was the result of a growing power (Athens) rising to challenge the supremacy of the established power (Sparta) to such an extent that the only possible resolution was war.

The scenario has been used to explain the causes of several conflicts throughout history including World War One (Germany challenging Britain) and World War Two in Asia (Japan challenging the US).

Not all of the contests have resulted in an exchange of blows. The Soviet challenge was successfully contained at the Cold War stage. This was partly because of the nuclear-based Mexican stand-off and partly because the Soviet system failed to develop an economic model that challenged American supremacy.

China has the economic model in spades. Between 2004 and 2014 its GDP skyrocketed from $5,760 billion to $18,228 billion while the US went from $12,275 billion to $17, 393 billion over the same period. Militarily, Beijing still trails behind the US, but it is coming up fast and challenging American hegemony not only in East Asia but also in Africa, and even Europe where the prospect of lucrative trade deals and cheap manufactures speaks volumes.

David Cameron, for instance, did his best to usher in a “Golden Age” of UK-China relations, and trade with China was seen by Brexiteers as one of the cornerstones of a successful post-Brexit world. In 2017, China surpassed the US as Germany’s largest trading partner outside the EU. Beijing’s Belt Road initiative is heavily targeted on Europe and the Chinese have acquired a controlling interest in the strategic port of Piraeus to ensure its success.

The seemingly inexorable rise of China has led many of the leading figures in the Trump Administration to press for a showdown with China before it is too big to topple. Former National Security adviser Steve Bannon voiced their policy in February 2017 when he said that within the next five to ten years there would be a war between the US and China. “There’s no doubt about that,” he declared.

Trade wars, economic sanctions, and coronavirus conspiracy theories coupled with President’s Trump’s insulting and bellicose tweets appear to be designed to isolate China and push it towards breaking point. Britain’s decision to dump Huawei and possibly other Chinese projects was a big win for the Trump Administration.

The Chinese have not helped. Threatening retaliation for Britain’s jettisoning of Huawei has only reinforced the belief that the company is a techno tool of the Chinese Communist Party. Then there is the issue of human rights in Hong Kong. The much-vaunted policy of “two systems in one country” now lies in tatters in the streets of the former British colony. The next big test could be Taiwan where Tsai Ing-wen has been re-elected president on a promise to take the island to de jure independence from China—a move which Beijing has warned is “totally unacceptable.”

The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic only adds to this gathering perfect storm. The world economy is expected to shrink by anywhere between 3.2 percent (IMF prediction) and six percent (OECD prediction) this year. The US is better placed than most to weather the whirlwind. China’s heavy dependence on external trade makes it more vulnerable to a global downturn.

The generally accepted belief is that China takes the long view. Hong Kong and recent pronouncements from Beijing indicates that the view is shortening. China is an autocracy. The continued existence of its leadership relies on its ability to provide bread and circuses to a compliant population. If a democratic government fails to deliver it is voted out of office. If an authoritarian leadership fails then they can end up swinging from the lampposts—another incentive for Xi Jinping to shorten his view.

 Tom Arms is a regular contributor

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1 Comment on "The Thucydides Trap"

  1. A well articulated summary of US-China current relations. Thank you, for writing such a good piece.

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