Have we learned from Thucydides? An examination of U.S./Chinese relations

At the end of September, UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs hosted scholar Dr. Graham Allison as a speaker for PBS’ American Forum program. Dr. Allison’s recently-released book, Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’s Trap, details and expands research he conducted with the Kennedy Center’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs regarding the likelihood of conflict between China and the United States. The timely release of Allison’s book shows the prevalence of anxiety surrounding China in American foreign policy circles. As our largest debt holder and trade partner, China’s fate remains intrinsically linked with the United States, but many fear that historical trends are sending the two countries into an unavoidable death spiral that will only result in war. While some may view this as hyperbolic or alarmist, the rapid shift of influence both regionally and globally between the countries is no small development. A Pew Research Center global survey reports that the U.S. is still regarded as the leading economy over China by a 10% margin, but the same survey reports that 7/10 European Union nations see China as a leader. 75% of Chinese believe themselves to be the most influential economy, while only 51% of Americans see their country as retaining its power. The rise of China has been gradual and a long time coming. Smaller countries may have already perceived the magnitude of China’s growth, but the American public is just beginning to grasp the height to which China’s star has ascended. For better or worse, the interplay of Chinese relations will come to dominate U.S. foreign policy discussions for the foreseeable future.

The phrase “Thucydides Trap” refers to the high probability of war that results when a rising power threatens the status of an established power. This notion was first described by its namesake, 5th century Athenian historian Thucydides, in his famous History of the Peloponnesian War in which he writes “It was the rise of Athens and the fear this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Allison’s book examines 16 case studies in the past 500 years in which a rising power threatens an established power, 12 of which end in war. Especially given the unstable nature of the Trump administration, careful consideration and caution are necessary to maintain the persistence of the Pax Americana.

To evade Thucydides’ trap, it is worth examining the degree to which its premises are true today. What kind of threat does China pose to America? There are three broad ways in which a rising power can threaten an established one: economic growth, militarization, and cultural creep. These are not discrete categories, as oftentimes an increase in influence of one area leads to increase in another, but rather they are ways to examine how a rising power directs its growth. In the case of the People’s Republic of China, the main threat to American primacy comes in economic terms. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development projects China’s GDP growth as surpassing the United States by 2021. The CIA already gives China the number one spot for GDP using Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) as of 2016. Regardless of estimate, it is clear that China’s economy has grander potential than the that of United States, yet pure growth is not as important as the ways in which the growth is directed.

China has proven adept in recent years at increasing its general economic influence among its neighbors in Asia through projects such as the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Both initiatives seek to promote growth, connectivity, and trade in Asia through different means. The Obama administration heavily opposed the AIIB seeing it as a threat to the World Bank and other institutions, yet many countries in the region and across the world supported the Chinese led project. The membership of Germany, Australia, and the United Kingdom in particular paints U.S. protestation as weak and childish, unable to prevent our closest allies from following our lead. Furthermore, the AIIB’s success at driving growth in the region has endeared China to its’ neighbors. Vietnam, one of the most rapidly growing economies and a prime goal market for American trade, has sought out a large stake in both initiatives despite worries of sino-domination. Meanwhile, the only significant American economic strategy in the Pacific in recent years came through the hotly-contested Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which President Trump withdrew in the early days of his presidency. President Trump claimed to be able to strike a better deal, but as of yet nothing has materialized. Though China itself was not party to the TPP, it was an opportunity for connection and cooperation that the U.S. will now miss out on. New Zealand and Australia, major non-Nato allies with historically close ties to America, have grown incredibly close to China economically. New Zealand, the first country to strike a free trade deal with China in 2008, just expanded their trade deal, and public opinion polls have found that Australian opinions of China have swelled to an all time high of 64% despite evidence of subversive behavior and cultural manipulation. It is clear that the U.S. is losing ground and ignoring potential opportunities. Unless the U.S. were to conduct a committed, legitimate, and driven “pivot” to Asia, unlike the Obama administration, China’s influence in the region will swell.. The U.S. must pursue specific policy objectives and trade deals, or otherwise accept a secondary role in Pacific economic expansion.

Militarily the United States still maintains a strong edge over China in terms of both conventional and strategic weapons deployment, yet this edge is dulling. A 2017 comparative analysis by the RAND corporation in nine categories found American military capabilities in the region have decreased from advantages in eight of nine categories to five of nine categories since 2003. September saw the first operational exercises conducted from China’s first overseas base in Djibouti, a landmark in its expansion of global influence. Also noteworthy is the strategic position of this base in East Africa, a locus of Chinese investment. Furthermore, China surpasses all other UN security council members in terms of contributions to peacekeeping missions across the globe. Symbolically, this attempts to paint China as a dedicated promulgator of peace. The reality of their involvement as peacekeepers is that these missions affect many poor and developing nations, especially in Africa, whose populations will come to view the Chinese hand as that which guides global development. This is already happening as the Pew Research Center reports an increased favorability rating of 59% among sampled African countries. When one counts China’s expansion in the South China sea and along the Indian border, it is clear that military influence is a non-trivial factor in their rise. The U.S. can certainly seek to curb influence abroad in Africa, but with a checkered history at best the Chinese have a leg up on ground work.

So how can America and China attempt to maintain peace alongside expansion? Current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, argues in his book A World in Disarray that economic interdependence can serve to prevent great power conflict when coupled with talented diplomatic cooperation. While the economic linkage of the U.S. and China could serve as common ground to foster more than a debtor relationship, economic interdependence between the rising German empire and the established British in the early twentieth centuries did not stop the decimation of an entire continent in World War I. Dialogue on issues beyond pure trade is necessary to establish a dialogue that facilitates cooperation. The issue of North Korea is one where a careful and talented diplomat could create common ground in deescalating the conflict.

The future of U.S./Chinese relations will have to be one of compromise. President Trump must understand (if possible) that America will not unilaterally get its way in the Pacific. Sooner or later, America will have to accept that its role as global hegemon is over, and must do its best to regard China as a co-equal great power in some areas.