Wang Huiyao: A path beyond the Thucydides trap for China, US

China Daily | April 25 , 2024


By Wang Huiyao | President?of?the Center for China and Globalization(CCG).


On March 27, the country’s top leader and a group of US businesspeople and academics agreed that the existing and rising powers can avoid the “Thucydides trap”. The meeting was held just days after the release of the book, Escaping Thucydides’ Trap: Dialogue with Graham Allison on China-US Relations, at the Center for China and Globalization. The timing of the book is critical, because the US presidential election in November will likely define the future of US-China relations amid a complex geopolitical landscape marked by trade disputes and regional conflicts.

In recent years, I have engaged in numerous discussions with Graham Allison, a leading analyst of national security, at events at the CCG as well as other places around the world, leading to the creation of our book. Through a series of questions and answers, we have examined the dynamics between rising and established powers, seeking paths for peaceful competition between China and the United States.

On March 22, 2024, Allison and I jointly released the English and the Chinese editions of the book at CCG’s headquarters in Beijing. At the book launch, we also had a number of meaningful discussions on the future of Sino-US ties that drew on key themes from the book. Allison, who first articulated the concept of the “Thucydides rap”, addressed the matter head-on: a US-China rivalry is inevitable, but so is cooperation when our need for survival requires it.

It all began with Thucydides, considered by some as the father of history, who introduced a key concept in his seminal work, The History of the Peloponnesian War. The concept is essential to the analysis of history, highlighting the perilous power dynamics between rising and ruling powers. At the heart of his analysis is the Thucydides’ trap — an almost inevitable conflict that ensues when a rapidly rising power, such as Athens in ancient times, poses a significant threat to an established dominant power, such as Sparta. This dynamic, illustrating the tension between an emergent force and the established power made the Peloponnesian War almost inevitable.

If we look at today’s global landscape, we will realize that no country in history has risen as rapidly and extensively in such a short time as China. From a country where, till the 1990s, 90 percent of the population lived on less than $2 a day, China has not only succeeded in eradicating extreme poverty but also become the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity.

The fact that this remarkable transformation has occurred in four decades and is unprecedented, has made the US uncomfortable because, having shaped the post-World War II international order and being the only superpower after the end of the Cold War, it cannot bear to see the rise of an equally powerful country. This is where the Thucydides trap comes in.

Moreover, trade tensions, geopolitical challenges, and issues such as the Taiwan question have become flashpoints in US-China relations, emphasizing the need to avoid the “Thucydides trap”, because now, more than ever, collaboration is crucial.

During the book launch, Allison used a compelling analogy to illustrate the intricate China-US interdependence. He likened the two countries to “conjoined twins”, sharing vital organs but with two distinct heads and minds, and bound by the existential imperative to “coexist or perish”. This drives home the point that engaging in harmful actions, even if momentarily satisfying, ultimately results in self-harm.

This concept aligns with the Chinese phrase, you are in me, and I am in you, which the top leader quoted during a meeting with a bipartisan US Senate delegation, which included Democrat Charles Schumer, on Oct 9, 2023. This notion is rooted in Chinese culture and contrasts with the often binary “black and white” thinking that marks discourse in the US, advocating instead for a more intertwined and connected approach.

The Chinese president was the first global leader to truly explore the concept of “Thucydides trap”, even before the publication of Destined for War: Can America and China Avoid Thucydides’ Trap? in 2017. He has often said that there is no inherent “Thucydides trap” in the world but that strategic miscalculations among major powers could inadvertently create one.

As a student and colleague of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Allison shares Kissinger’s perspective that Sino-US relations are perilously poisoned, yet insists that coexistence is achievable. He believes that through steadfast communication and thoughtful diplomacy, major powers can transcend the historical inevitabilities that Thucydides described.

In his role as a Harvard professor and former US government official, Allison significantly influences the narrative on US-China relations. He argues that cooperation between the two countries is not just mutually beneficial but also essential for survival. So the two powers should work together by setting aside their differences and focusing on their fundamental interests — chief among them being national survival.

The idea of interconnection has broader implications, especially considering the fragmented nature of the current global order, which lacks a common goal for collective action. It further underscores the necessity of exploring strategies to bridge divides and establish a framework for peaceful competition. Such was the impetus behind Allison’s seminal work, Destined for War.

His follow-up work, Escaping Thucydides’ Trap, directly responds to his earlier analysis based on our robust dialogue on how to prevent conflicts. This dialogue critically examines the triggers that could lead to war and proposes viable strategies for steering clear of the Thucydides’ trap, drawing on historical lessons that underscore the possibility and necessity of peaceful coexistence.

In his new book, Allison refutes the “fatalist” view on potential conflict between the US and China, asserting that a conflict is “not inevitable” and, instead, advocates for adjustments in behavior and proactive steps to prevent a tragedy of historic proportions. Unlike many Western figures who continue to view China as a threat, Allison objectively views China’s progress, respects its right to development, and lauds its achievements, and supports constructive competition, comparing it to the Olympics.

From China Daily, 2024-4-25