Heading for Thucydides’s trap

The entire world has a stake in the US-China relationship as a tectonic shift takes place in the global power scene

Two and a half millennia ago, the ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, identified the risk of a deadly trap into which a ruling and a rising power can fall. While explaining how the two leading city-states of classical Greece ended up in a devastating war, he wrote, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

Thucydides’ concerns were recently echoed by Graham Allison in his book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? An outcome of a decade-long research project, Allison’s book draws similarities between the rise of China against the US and that of Athens against Sparta and warns, “China and the US are currently on a collision course—unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it.”

Allison believes that the war between the US and China is not inevitable and that Thucydides’s claim about inevitability of war between a ruling and a rising power was an exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis. I disagree. I argue that the various developments in the US-China bilateral relationship, in the last six years, have sounded the alarm bells. There is danger ahead.

The two countries are heading towards a point of no return and the bitterness between them has permeated the realms of economics, politics, society and military.

The developments in the two powers’ relationship in the past six years are dangerous. The future appears to be more pernicious. I, therefore, contend that war between the two is inevitable albeit not in the traditional sense and not on their own territories. Trade war is one example of how novel ways can be adopted to undermine one another. The rise of China has instilled fear in the US and unless both parties take difficult actions other types of war, including proxy wars are inevitable.

Taking the readers chronologically through the developments of the past six years will substantiate my argument. The relationship between Washington and Beijing have been deteriorating since May 2014 when the US Department of Justice indicted five Chinese hackers for alleged ties to the People’s Liberation Army, on charges of stealing trade technology from some US companies. China retaliated by suspending its cooperation in the US-China cyber security working group.

A year later, in May 2015, Ashton Carter, the then US Secretary of Defence, called on China to halt controversial land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. US officials claimed they had evidence of China installing military equipment on a chain of artificial islands in the Sea. Subi Reef is claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. China refuted the allegations by claiming that the construction was for civilian purposes.

In 2016, Trump’s winning the US elections made the matters worse. With just about a year into his office, Trump announced sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports worth more than $50 billion for allegedly stealing US technology and intellectual property. China responded with retaliatory measures on a range of US products. It did not take long for the trade war to escalate.

In July 2018, 25 percent import tax was imposed by the US on more than 800 Chinese products. China had to respond with tariffs on more than 500 US products. The US administration used phrases like “ripping off” in describing Chinese behavior. China lambasted the Trump administration’s moves as “trade bullying.”

In late 2018, any efforts to improve the aggravating situation suffered a severe blow when US Vice President Mike Pence clearly indicated that the US would prioritise competition over cooperation by using tariffs to combat the Chinese economic aggression. He was vociferous against Chinese ‘military aggression’ in the South China Sea, increased censorship and religious persecution by the Chinese government. China denounced Pence’s speech as “groundless accusations.”

Developments remained on a perilous trajectory when Canada arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer on a US request in December 2018. Meng Wanzhou and her company were alleged to have committed fraud and violation of trade sanctions against Iran. In tit for tat action, China detained two Canadian citizens accused of undermining China’s national security. Later, Huawei sued the US for banning US federal agencies from using its equipment.

Trump’s winning the US elections could be described as moving from bad to worse. With just about a year into his office, Trump announced sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports.

In May 2019, the trade war worsened as the US raised tariffs from 10 to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods with an expectation that this step would “force China to make a favourable deal.” China also increased tariffs on $60 billion worth of American goods and termed the US expectations as “extravagant.” Targeting Huawei, Trump also banned US companies from using foreign-made telecommunications equipment that could threaten US interests.

The US signed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in 2019 supporting the political unrest in Hong Kong which is currently run as a Special Administrative Region of China.

Since 1997, when China took it back from Britain, Hong Kong is being governed by China under the ‘One Country Two Systems’ formula which will remain in force till 2047. China retaliated by imposing sanctions on some US-based organisations and suspended permission for US warships to visit Hong Kong.

The most recent clash between the titans has been in the social and public health domain. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, accusations have been levelled by both against each other with China claiming that the virus was brought to China by the US military and Trump calling it a “Chinese virus.” Trump has also accused the World Health Organisation of being biased towards China and stopped funding of the international organisation.

The developments of 2020 have been too fast and too serious to ignore. Tensions have soared as China expelled American journalists, Trump ended Hong Kong’s special status after Beijing passed a new national security law and both countries closed several consulates as diplomatic relations worsened culminating in US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks that the era of engagement with the Chinese Communist Party is over.

Adding fuel to the fire, the US Department of Defence in early September released a report titled, Military Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020. The report warns that Chinese military developments and goals would have ‘serious’ implications for US national interests and the security of the international order.

The report talks about the areas where Chinese military has overtaken the US for example in navy where it has at least 57 more submarines and warships then the US. China has called the report a “wanton distortion” of China’s aims and described the US as the biggest threat to world peace.

The entire world has a stake in the US-China relationship as a tectonic shift takes place in the global power scene. Can they be prevented from falling into Thucydides’s trap?

The writer is a research scholar. He can be reached at athar.mansoor74@gmail.com

US-China relationship: Heading for Thucydides’s trap