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War with China: The Thucydides Trap

There is a small but significant industry in the United States that predicts the “coming war” with China, and Atlantic Magazine is foremost among reputable American monthlies in giving a home to such speculation. It has just done it again, in an article that includes a hearty dose of geopolitical theory. The theory is “The Thucydides Trap”.

The author is Graham Allison of Harvard University, the man who coined that phrase. Thucydides, the historian of the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC, explained what caused the war this way: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” It lasted twenty years, and at the end of it the two great powers of the ancient Greek world were both devastated.

Yet they didn’t really go to war over anything in particular, according to Thucydides. The problem was that Athens was overtaking Sparta in power (like China is overtaking the United States now), and just that one fact was enough to send them to war. So are China and the United States doomed to go to war in the next decade?

Graham Allison knows better than to make a hard prediction, but he does point out that out of the past sixteen cases when one major power was gaining in power and its rival feared relegation to the second rank, twelve ended in war.

Such predictions and formulas have an impact in the real world. When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Seattle two weeks ago at the beginning of his US visit, he felt obliged to respond to Allison’s article: “There is no such thing as the Thucydides Trap in the world,” Xi said. “But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

Well, he wasn’t going to say “Yeah, we’re doomed to go to war with each other,” was he? But it’s clear that Chinese (and American) leaders worry about this – and that worrying about it paradoxically makes it more likely to happen, because it places the whole question of ‘Who’s on top?’ at the centre of their thinking.

Does it really matter who’s more powerful when China and the United States have no shared border, make no territorial claims against each other, and are separated by the world’s largest ocean? Lots of people in each country would say no, but both countries have military-industrial-academic complexes that thrive on the threat of a US-Chinese military conflict.

They wouldn’t benefit from an actual war, of course. But the threat of a great war kept millions of people in the military, in defence industries and in various universities and think tanks in interesting and sometimes very profitable work during the four decades of the US-Soviet Cold War.

The threat of a US-Chinese war already provides gainful employment to a lot of people, though nothing like as many as those who made a living off the threat of World War III during the Cold War. If the perceived threat of war grows, so will the number of American and Chinese experts who make a living from it. So it’s worth examining Graham Allison’s assumptions to see if they hold water.

There are only two key assumptions. One is that China will decisively surpass the United States in national power in the coming decade. The other is that such transfers of power from one dominant nation to another are still likely to end in war. Neither is as certain as it seems.

Chinese dominance is certain if the country keeps growing economically even at its new, lower rate of seven per cent a year. That is still at least twice the US rate, and the magic of compound interest will still do its work. But the era of 10 per cent annual growth ended for Japan and South Korea, the other East Asian “miracles”, after about thirty years. Each country then fell to a normal industrialised-country growth rate or (in Japan’s case) below it.

China is at around the 30-year point now. Maybe its managers are cleverer and it can avoid the same fate, but their recently ham-fisted efforts to prop up the stock market suggest otherwise.

Most observers believe that China’s economic growth this year is already below seven per cent – maybe four per cent or even less. Neither of the other East Asian miracles ever got back onto the ultra-high growth track after they fell off it. At four per cent growth or less, China would not be overtaking the United States any time soon.

As for twelve out of sixteen changes in the great-power pecking order ending in war, that’s true. But according to Allison’s own data, three out of the four that didn’t end in war were the last three, covering the last half-century. Recent history is a great deal more encouraging than older history.

Maybe more effective international institutions have helped the great powers to avoid war. Maybe the existence of nuclear weapons has made them much more cautious. Probably both. But a US-Chinese war is not inevitable. It may not even be very likely.