A Dialogue Between Wang Huiyao, CCG President and Graham Allison, Coiner of “the Thucydides’ Trap”CCG | April 06 , 2021
Wang Huiyao: Good morning or good evening everyone and thank you for being with us for this dialogue with Professor Graham Allison from Harvard University and also Professor Li Chen from Renmin University of China. We’re live at CCG’s new multi-media studio in Beijing. This dialogue series is a part of CCG’s “China and the World” webinar series that we launched last year in an effort to engage eminent scholars, experts, government advisors and business leaders to continue exchange amid the pandemic, which is a difficult and challenging period of time.
We are really fortunate to be hosting Professor Graham Allison in this session. Professor Graham Allison is a world-renowned political scientist and a leading strategist in US national security and defense policy, with a special interest in nuclear arms control, geopolitical competition, and also strategic decision making. He is always at the front of the world affairs and has been a leading voice on issues like US-Soviet relations, the rise of China, Sino-US relations, terrorism, as well as Cuba and the Middle East.
Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard Kennedy School, where he has taught for five decades. He was the “Founding Dean” of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and until 2017, he served as the Director of its Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs which is ranked the “No.1 University Affiliated Think Tank” in the world. He was also Assistant Secretary of Defense in the first Clinton Administration, and received the Defense Department’s highest civilian award, the Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, for “reshaping relations with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to reduce the former Soviet nuclear arsenal”.
Under his leadership from 1977 to 1989, Harvard Kennedy School has grown from a small undefined program to a major public policy institute. I’ve been really honored to have spent a year there as a senior fellow and had many exchanges with professor Graham and it was really a fond memory. It is also worth mentioning that many Chinese policy decision makers and scholars have gone through training programs there at Harvard Kennedy School.
Also, as Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Clinton and Special Adviser to the Secretary of Defense under President Reagan, Graham has been a member of the Secretary Defense’s Advisory Board for every Secretary from Weinberger to Mattis. So he is well known and frequently consulted. He has the sole distinction of having twice been awarded the Distinguished Public Service Medal, first by Secretary Cap Weinberger and second by Secretary Bill Perry. He has served on the Advisory Boards of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and the Director of the CIA.
Dr. Allison was the organizer of the Commission on America’s National Interests (1996 and 2000), a founding member of the Trilateral Commission, a Director of the Council on Foreign Relations, and has been a member of public committees and commissions, among them the Baker-Cutler DOE Task Force on Nonproliferation Programs with Russia, the IAEA’s Commission of Eminent Persons, and the Commission on Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism.
He has the sole distinction of having twice been awarded the Distinguished Public Service Medal, first by Secretary Weinberger and second by Secretary Bill Perry. That’s very unique. He has served on the Advisory Boards of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and the Director of the CIA. so Graham Allison also was the organizer of the Commission on America’s National Interests (1996 and 2000), a founding member of the Trilateral Commission, a Director of the Council on Foreign Relations, and has been a member of public committees and commissions, among them the Baker-Cutler DOE Task Force on Nonproliferation Programs with Russia, the IAEA’s Commission of Eminent Persons, and the Commission on Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism.
Graham Allison: I think it’s more than enough, thank you Henry. Let’s jump into the topic.
Wang Huiyao: Okay, probably enough here. Professor’s famous book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? was published in 2017. He actually gave a talk at the Center for China & Globalization in 2017 for this very well-known book, we had a very good discussion then for your profound thinking here. Also just last year, we invited you to a CCG event at the Munich Security Conference, where we have a very good talk.
The discussion we’re having today is really fascinating with the topic “Destined for rivalry partnership – US-China co-opetition in changing reality” and we also have another distinguished scholar, Professor Li Chen, the Director of Center for International Security and Strategy at School of International Studies, Renmin University of China. His research interests include strategic and diplomatic history, contemporary security and military strategy, and China-U.S. security relations, on which he has published scholarly articles in leading journals such as the Journal of Strategic Studies, China Military Science, and various public policy briefings. He frequently participates in various Track-2 dialogues on Asia- Pacific security. He is also a non-resident fellow of Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University. Li received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 2013. He has a master from Peking University.
So let’s begin our discussion today. You’ve been really widely consulted lately in many occasions and it’s really a great opportunity for us to talk to you. And we notice now this is also a very interesting time that President Biden has assumed office for probably less than 100 days now. And he had basically proposed that let’s have competition, but let’s also have corporation. Also for Mr. Wang Yi, Foreign Minister of China has also said at the NPC session that China recognizes there is competition but we also can have a cooperation. President Biden and President Xi had a 2-hour call on the Chinese new year and both presidents have expressed the desire of seeking no confrontation but cooperation if possible.
The question in the title of your book Destined for War? Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? has become a famous one. “It was the Rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Spartan that made war inevitable.” says the Greek historian Thucydides. So, can America and China escape this trap? It’s been four years since you published Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap, maybe you can share with us some new thinking about that, Professor Graham.
Graham Allison: Thank you very much. So I’ve long argued that Chinese should be much more forthcoming in helping all of us appreciate more of what Xi Jinping now calls Chinese wisdom. Actually, I applauded the fact that he’s been now more forward-leaning about the idea that maybe Chinese has earned something that the rest of us could learn from. I’m eager to hear what others have to say on the topic but I have a pretty good idea on what I think. I’m trying to become clearer about the way forward.
Let me make 3 points just to start with. First point, for those who may not remember the Thucydides’ trap and Thucydides’ rivalry. The first point, which I make in my book and which I would urge you to think about if you haven’t had a chance to look at it, is that the defining feature of the relationship between the US and China today, for as far ahead is any I can see, will be a ruthless rivalry. So in a competition, in which a rising China, which is seeking to make China great again, will continue as it has for a generation, rising, and becoming stronger and as it does so we will be encroaching on positions and prerogatives that Americans, as the ruling power, have come to believe, are naturally their own as number one, at the top of every pecking order. If we put this against the historical canvas of history, the best way to clarify what’s actually happening in this relationship is that China is rising, as long as China doesn’t crash or crack up, it will continue rising. So currently, it has about ¼ of the per capita GDP of the US but of course, it’s has 4 times as many people. So on the current trajectory, why shouldn’t Chinese be as productive as South Koreans, which of course they will be. And if they were, China will have more than half of the per capita GDP of the US but then it would have a GDP twice the size of the US. So as China rises in every arena, Americans who have become accustomed to believing we are number one in every competition will find themselves being overtaken or even surpassed. So at the beginning of the century, America was the major trading partner of everybody. By 2021, China is the major trading partner of almost everybody. A generation ago, America was the manufacturing workshop of the world. Today, China is the manufacturing for the world.
So, in the structural realities, it’s a rising China that’s impacting a ruling US. And I compare this in my book to like a seesaw of power in which China gets stronger and wealthier and more powerful inevitably. That’s nature of the Thucydides’ rivalry. That rise shifts the tectonics of power, the seesaw of power between the rising power, and the ruling power. So that’s point one.
I know many Chinese colleagues have not wanted it to accept the proposition, saying well China is not really rising, it’s already risen or China is different. I would say the best way to think about it, this is another instance of a pattern that we’ve seen since Thucydides wrote about Athens and Sparta. And then in my book, I find 16 instances of just in the last 500 years, so this has happened for a long time.
Point 2, equally important. We now live in the 21st century, where the objective conditions in the 21st century have condemned that the US and China to co-exist since the only other option is to co-destruct. So 2 arenas here, first, nuclear weapons, we learned in the Cold War and Chen Li is a serious student of the Cold War and I’m an old “Cold Warer.” We learned very painfully when the Soviet Union acquired a robust nuclear arsenal that was capable of a second strike, that we lived in a “MAD” world that was called mutually assured destruction. So that means that if one attacked the other, at the end of the story, both would be destroyed. So this is like a mutual suicide pact. I have compared it to inseparable conjoined twins in which if one gives way to its impulses in dealing with the other and strangles it, it will succeed in killing its twin but it will commit suicide. So that’s the nuclear base, and that’s true in the relationship of the US and China today. Even though the US has a much larger nuclear arsenal, it’s still the case that if there was a full scale of nuclear war, in the end of the war, America is destroyed. So that’s mutually assured destruction. We also have, in the 21st century, as we understand, climate. China, which is the number one greenhouse gas emitter, and the US, which is the number two emitter, are admitted into the same contained biosphere and can either by themselves create an environment in which neither can live. So we have a kind of analog on climate.
And in addition, we’re both so entangled in a global process of globalization and the global economy that no one can decouple himself from this without impoverishing himself. So on the one hand, we’re going to be to be fierce rivals. On the other hand, we’re condemned by nature and by technology, to cooperate, in order to survive. So, how about these two contradictory ideas at the same time? And that’s why in searching for ways to escape Thucydides’ Trap. I found very interesting the bit of Chinese wisdom as best I can understand it that in the Song dynasty, back a thousand years ago, when in 1,005, the Song having found themselves unable to defeat the Liao, a northern Mongol tribe, negotiated the Chanyuan Treaty, as some historians have called it. They agreed to become rivalry partners. So they had defined areas in which they would continue to be rivals, but they had other areas in which they were thickly cooperating. In fact it was a very peculiar arrangement, because even though the Liao agreed that the Song was a major dynasty, the tribute actually flowed from the Song to the Liao. So the Song were paying the Liao. But the deal was the Liao had to take whatever tribute that was paid and use it to buy things from the Song. You had actually an early version of the multiplier effect in economies. In this treaty, which I know many Chinese don’t like, because for whatever reason, the Song dynasty is not appreciated sufficiently. That’s my poor man’s view of Chinese history, so apologies for that. But in any case, from my perspective, since I’m interested in not having war, it’s Chanyuan Treaty that preserved peace between the Song and the Liao for 120 years. So I would say in the annals of history, a treaty that takes two parties who are in fierce rivalry, and manages a 100 years of peace between them has done a pretty good thing.
Wang Huiyao: Thank you for your great illustration of your points. I really like your twin metaphor. Now we are actually in a much more intertwined world where we are actually inseparable, it’s a twin relationship. We have to work together in fighting climate change, the pandemic and all the other challenges. So if we really separate, we end up both dying. So that is a great metaphor.
Also, you mentioned that you summarized the 16 incidents in the last 500 years, in which four of them actually ended up peacefully. I know that Professor Li is a military strategy researcher and as Graham has mentioned, in the context of the Song-Liao relationship in the Chinese history, the Chanyuan Treaty actually secured peace for almost 100-200 years and they had 380 representative exchanges during this 100-200 years so that there is a possibility that we can maintain this peace. So perhaps Professor Li can share a bit of your ideas on how we can avoid Thucydides’ trap, based on your research.
Li Chen: Thank you Huiyao, and thank you, Graham. And I have a few comments on Graham’s remarks. Firstly, I think with regard to both the concept of the rising and ruling powers, in particular, for the experience of both the rise of the US in the 19th century or early 20th century and the rise of China in this last 70 years, the most important factor is the home front. That is, we need to concentrate on our economic development at home and also solving our social problems. So I think this is one of the most important lessons.
My second point is that with regard to the challenge and risk of the great power competition, I totally agree with Graham. During the Cold War, the nuclear weapons were extremely dangerous. And I think in the 21st century, we also have other new technological challenges, such as cyber. Because our daily life depends on cyber. If the great power competition escalates, I think we will face serious challenges in the cyber domain so we need to manage this competition very carefully.
My third point is about the relationship between the Liao and the Song. as mentioned by Graham. I have 2 points here. The first point is that probably we need to have a long term perspective, because the Song-Liao experience is a long peace after the long war. Both sides had learned plenty of lessons from the long war of at least 30 years. So probably one challenge for the 21st century is that we can’t have a long warfare after a long peace, because it will be very destructive. And my second point that the reason why the Song and Liao had the long peace is that they realized that you can’t rely on force to solve all of your problems. At the same time, you have the other concerns such as external challenges, and also you need to focus on your home front as just mentioned. These are my responses to Graham’s idea. Thank you.
Graham Allison: Can I ask Chen Li one question, Please? Looking at the Song and their relationship with the Liao, is this a special case in Chinese history or are there some analogs that you would regard as similar from which we might also learn something?
Li Chen: From the experience of the ancient China, the major dynasties, not only Song, but also Han Dynasty and other dynasties – as they tried to improve their policies to maintain peace with all the all the entities, we can probably find other periods of peace. So I think that this is a very interesting area for our research. And that’s something probably we can learn more from you because you pay more attention to the lessons from ancient history on contemporary history or current affairs. We need more cooperation between the historians who work on ancient Chinese history and experts who work on current affairs.
Graham Allison: In the US and England where you studied, there are many people who study Chinese dynasties and it’s actually fascinating because it’s such a long history. It’s so complex and for a poor person like me who doesn’t speak mandarin and comes late to the party, it’s staggering as for the US, I have trouble thinking of 300 years of history. So for 3,000 or more with so many twists and turns, it’s a very rich body of experience that ought to be processed for lessons and I think Chinese historians, obviously, are advantaged in that. But there are many people in the West interested so I hope you and your colleagues dig in further. I was only by accident, introduced to it as somebody once told me about the Song and Liao as an example. But I bet you there’s more examples but I just haven’t found yet.
Wang Huiyao: Thanks again. Actually in the history of China, there are probably many examples that fights were avoided and peace was secured. Even not too long ago, Zheng He, an envoy, took 7 expeditions to go as far as to Africa and Southeast Asia, which was 100 years before Columbus discovered America and during these trips, they gave a lot of gifts to other countries and the locals,and never colonized any nations. So you can see that historically, China is peace-loving, now, it still hasn’t sent a soldier to occupy any territory. I just read an article from China Daily from Kishore Mahbubani who is also our friend, Graham. He was saying China’s renaissance is helping China to reshape a bit of contemporary history, as we do have common threats like climate change and the pandemic. We really have to act as twins and work together.
Now I’d like to also follow up for another question. Graham, your recent Foreign Affairs article called for the Biden administration to adopt an “unsentimental China policy”. How do you view the essence of the US-China rivalry as based on structural change or something more complicated – a combination of fear, value, psychology and ideological differences and even a clash of civilizations? Can we really do something on that?
Graham Allison: I think the good news about Biden is that he is somebody who is well-grounded and has thought about international affairs, for all of his adult life. I’ve known for him now for more than four decades. He has been in the Senate. He’s been the Chairman for the Foreign Relations Committee. He has been the Vice President. He and Xi Jinping have probably spent more time together than any other leaders, other than Putin, or before that, Lee Kuan Yew. They understand each other. So when they had this phone call, they’re not starting from scratch. They’re building on a relationship that’s developed.
And I think President Biden appreciates the fact, as I’ve written, the challenge is the Gatsby Challenge. So in The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald writes the test of a first-class mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time and still function. So idea one: this is going to be a fierce competition, because both the US and China are determined, to whatever extent they can, to be the biggest economy, the smartest economy, the best AI, the best military, the biggest trading partner, the fast whatever. So when the Olympics occur, each will be seeking to win as much gold as they can. That’s what the Olympics is. That’s on the one hand.
On the other hand, at the same time, and somewhat in contradiction with the first, is the fact that unless the US and China can find ways to coordinate and cooperate in dealing with climate, we’d create a biosphere that nobody can live in. Unless US and China can find a way to cooperate to make sure third-party actions like set of events over Taiwan or North Korea so that an incident doesn’t spiral out of control, we can end up in a war, we can end up in a real full-scale war. We can end up destroying both societies. Most people can’t imagine what that means, but there was an old cold warer, we used to look at target charts and calculate the destructive effects. It could literally be the case that if we had a full-scale nuclear war between China and the US, both China and the US would be wiped off the map, they’d simply be gone as countries. But that’s inconceivable. No human being can make sense of that but that’s the physical capability of the weapons that exists
So we are compelled to cooperate, to avoid sequences of events that could boost that result, to avoid letting unconstraint greenhouse gas emissions create a globe we can’t live and we can’t breathe in. So how to do these two things at the same time? And how, actually, to explain that, in the politics of both countries, which are both complicated? Because Americans look at China and say “My god! How could China be rivalling us on all these fronts?” We remember when China was small and poor, backward as a developing country. And Chinese, when they watch anchorage or other events and when I read of people who watch China social media, some people say “Enough for this, we don’t need to have an American lecturing us any more, we have become bigger and stronger, we need to be more assertive”. So on managing the internal affairs of two great powers, I think Xi Jinping and Biden may be able to hold two contradictory ideas and function. But how can they manage their governments in their societies under these conditions? That’s the problem I have been working on. But I don’t have too many good ideas.
Wang Huiyao: Okay, great. Thank you. I like the idea you said that the Olympic Game spirit. If we can conduct a peaceful competition where we all strike for gold medals and maybe we have a win-win situation. And then maybe if we measure the country by KPI, by their domestic performance is probably a more effective way. It’s a kind of Deng Xiaoping’s idea, “It doesn’t matter if it is a white cat or a black cat as long as it catches mice.” So we can really avoid a “I pick your problem, you pick my problem” situation, in which .we are not really concentrating on solving our own problems. So this kind of Olympic Game spirit is really suitable, I think, for this comparison of Sino-US relations.
I want to review the 12 clues you mentioned in your Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap, this 12 points that we have read from the book. I think a lot of them still quite true, even though you proposed quite a few years ago so I’d like to share that. For example, you talk about higher authorities can help resolve rivalry without war, meaning maybe international organizations. And the second, states can be embedded in larger economic, political and security institutions that constrain historically “normal” behaviors so that’s also very true for the contemporary world where we all the countries now have a larger and more economic and political and security institution to control our behavior now. And third is wily statesmen make a virtue of necessity and distinguish needs and wants. Another clue is, timing is crucial – absolutely, we are in such a critical timing for the whole world to know we’re going to head to the next 75 years after this worldwide virus war. And fifth, cultural commonalities can help prevent the conflict. We will have globalization and a globalized culture. Can we actually see a bit more of that and really deepen that to prevent conflict? Also, the sixth, there’s nothing new under the sun except the nuclear weapons. It’s a strong deterrent for us not to do anything. As you said, it’s mutually assured destructions and MAD really does make all-out war madness, which is a very sound advice. Number eight, hot war between nuclear superpowers is thus no longer a justifiable option, which is true, because if China and US all have nuclear weapons, and if really anything triggered one conflict that went out of control, we’ve got a whole world destroyed. China now has more liability now, not to mention that we have 2/3 of the highways in the world and also the largest fast-train networks and many dams and bridges. It would really not be good for the US too, as the US is also a beautiful country. And number nine, leaders of nuclear superpowers must nonetheless be prepared to risk a war that cannot win. So that’s really we have to have global coordination to prevent that. Then, think economic interdependence raises the cost – and thus lowers the likelihood of war. I think that’s very true, because China’s per capita GDP was over $10,000 and the US has a per capita GDP of over $60,000 in 2020, so we are all getting relatively rich now and don’t want a war. Number 11, alliance can be a fatal attraction. And number 12, domestic performance is decisive, which is also correct. We should all focus on the domestic performance, which is to measure the country on its support to its people. For example, China has lifted 800 million people out of poverty. That’s probably the biggest human rights development in China. So these 12 clues are still largely true and I don’t know if you have anything to add on that, or Professor Li have anything to say on that?
Li Chen: I would say a few things. As Graham mentioned in his earlier comments, he is convinced that the leaders of the two countries are determined to manage the competition but he’s not sure whether the societies and the public opinions of the two sides will do so as well. Well, a positive lesson from the Cold War is that we have two periods. The first is the mobilization of both sides. At that time, people probably believed that force and pressure would work. But I think later on, both sides realized that pressures and force had limitations. So the mobilization period of the great power competition passed the world entered into détente, the period of stabilization.
So I think the key point here is that if we can manage crisis very, very carefully and we review the lessons of the competition – not only the leaders, but also the ordinary citizens, then the public opinion will realize that in the long-term competition, we need to talk with each other and also cooperate with each other, not only to maintain peace, but also to solve problems. And Graham also mentioned the important factor of other parties. And Even during a long-term great power competition, we need to work with both sides and with other parties to try to establish some security orders to accommodate all the crucial interest of everyone. So I think this is why in the 1970s and in the 1980s, the Cold War in Europe become boring compared to 1940s and 50s, during which we witnessed plenty of crisis. So these are my ideas. Thank you.
Graham Allison: I agree very much. I discussed the Cold War a little bit in Destined for War and I studied the topic for a long time. And I think you have been studying the Cold War very effectively. In the Cold War, it started with the idea that these are two systems inherently so incompatible, that one will have to destroy the other and that would normally lead to war. But initially because the US and the Soviet Union were both exhausted from World War II. And then eventually, because they both acquired nuclear arsenals, they conclude that’s not an option. Therefore, how about we have a “war” but don’t use bombs and bullets by uniformed combatants. And in that so-called Cold War, early on, there emerged a set of constraints, some of which were implicit, some of which were explicit. And then, eventually, we discovered that we would have to coordinate and constrain, but also communicate very quickly and even cooperate in order to prevent things getting out of control. So I think the lessons from that set of experiences, even though the current rivalry between US and China are very different, nonetheless can be very instructive.
I think, for example, I was doing something on this with the people in Washington last week. I was explaining that even in the deadliest era or days of the Cold War, we were keen to have thick conversations and communication between the President and the President. So Reagan was often be criticized by his conservative Republican colleagues for why he wanted to spend so much time talking to his Soviet counterparts. He said it’s very important to talk to them because a nuclear war cannot be won, therefore must never be fought. He was keen to negotiate with his Soviet counterpart, even to reach arms control agreements in which the US would forego doing something Americans wanted to do. As the price, for getting the Soviet Union to forego the thing that we did not want them to do. In every one of those cases, there was a problem of trust so you would only agree on things that you could independently verify. But this process over time stabilized to a degree, as you pointed out and made it possible to avoid lots of potential crisis that could have gone out of control, which almost did, in the Berlin Crisis or the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I think there is no reason why in the rivalry between the US and China, we shouldn’t pick up, dust off and adapt all of the lessons that we learn from the earlier period about the necessity for communication at many levels, for thick communication, for crisis management procedures, even for crisis prevention procedures. I think that would be actually a big addition that Henry and Chen Li and lots of others, might add to the list for avoiding being sucked into the Thucydides dynamic that could ultimately drag us into a war.
Wang Huiyao: Great, thank you both for adding some new thinking. I think it’s a good idea for crisis management. You mentioned that during the Cold War, even the US and the Soviet Union had such a fierce competition but they still maintained high-level dialogue. I remember also there’s a kitchen debate, even at that time, between Khrushchev and Nixon there.
And also, I think the Olympic Game competition is the kind of peaceful competition among countries. Like Thomas Friedman mentioned in the New York Times, China’s doing an Olympic Game at the country level, maybe the world can have a peaceful competition too globally. I have an idea for that. When we have a common pressure and necessity to work together like this pandemic, we have to fight together.
Also I noticed that the President Biden, just a week ago announced this massive and gigantic infrastructure plan for the US, which is enormous. And China has been able to develop very well on the infrastructure front. China has set up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. So probably we need a new Bretton Woods moment and can work with the US to build up a world infrastructure investment bank, so that we can really share some common interest with the US and to build a larger pie to share and to distribute. So that we don’t have to really fight since we have some large interest to draw us together. That’s one recommendation that I can think of.
The second recommendation that I can think of to add on your list is on the EU. I don’t see the EU as a problem. If you count Europe as a whole, it’s probably the largest economy in the world. Since they don’t have a problem of the Thucydides’ Trap with the US, they could be at a third-party position. They can be the mediating power between China and the US. Maybe we can have some kind of tri-party talks so that they can really be a good middleman in avoiding the conflicts between the US and China.
The other thing I can think of is that an article written by Richard Haass, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote in the Foreign Affairs on March 23rd, saying the global system of multilateralism is on the crossroad and the world will be ending the two-century western domination. Western domination is not only going to diminish materially, but also ideologically. He was really thinking of the 19th-century coordination mechanism. So he was saying that probably the world needs a new world coordination mechanism, and he proposed a six-country coordination, including the US, China, the EU, Japan, India and Russia. So that we have this new international coordination mechanism regardless of ideology and value. Those are maybe things we can think of. And I noticed that one of your great friends, Henry Kissinger, spoke at a Chatham House event recently and also at the China Development Forum that the final issue between China and the US and other western countries is whether they can reach an understanding with China. If not, it’s almost like the eve of the First World War. This issue is very dangerous. If it loses control, we may destroy each other. So I’d like to hear your thoughts on Richard Haass and Henry Kissinger. How can we find common things to work together to accept China? Because I found that although China is doing right thing on many fronts, it’s still not accepted by some Western countries. China is doing well on infrastructure, on poverty alleviation and contributed to over 1/3 of global GDP growth. But those are not appreciated by the public of some Western countries. How can we reconcile that?
Graham Allison: I agree. You have obviously been thinking about it. So this is good and I like your list. For infrastructure, I think it’s interesting that if you look at the Biden infrastructure bill, one of my Chinese friends said to me, this is called the American version of China 2025. In part, it’s inspired by President Xi Jinping’s earlier version. The other thing I would say about this, half in jest, for those of you who haven’t seen my Ted talk on Thucydides’ Trap, I have a great graphic picture of the contrast between Chinese infrastructure and American infrastructure. And with the proposal that the Chinese could teach the Americans many lessons, I compared two bridges. First the bridge outside my office that goes across the Charles River between the Kennedy School and the Business School. And a bridge in Beijing, which has 3 times as many traffic, which was also renovated. You can guess how long each of them took, but you won’t believe it until you see it. So I would say, go look at it. It’s a 17-minute clip, you can go to the middle and find that it takes about 2 minutes. So the US could learn a lot from China in infrastructure development. In the period of the US was building up one high-speed rail going from Los Angeles to Sacramento that actually got into $85 billion worth and gave up. China built 12,000 miles of high-speed rail. So there’s a lot that the US could learn on the infrastructure front. The EU and the idea of three parties coordination mechanism is very interesting and I have to think more about that.
On the new concern that Richard was arguing about. I think, basically, a lot of people have taken this analogue to what happened at the Congress of Vienna and the Concert of Europe. But I think the differences between circumstances today and then are so much more substantial than the similarities. It’s not a very helpful analogy. And then for Henry who might talk a lot about this, he believes that if the competition is totally unconstrained, if we’re not able to develop some, both implicit and explicit constraints, on the competition, particularly in the areas where cooperation is necessary for survival, that the outcome will be catastrophic. I agree with that.
I think the place to start is the Thucydides’ rivalry, most often, leads to catastrophic destruction. That’s insane. And that’d be insane for China and insane for the US. So the imperative for all of us is to find the way to escape the Thucydides’ Trap. And that’s why looking everywhere we can, rivalry partnership in the Song dynasty or lessons from the Cold War, or lessons from the period, as Chen Li said, when the US rose to rival Britain. Wherever we can find lessons, I think we should be all out actively pursuing them and collecting them. I think fortunately, we have Xi Jinping who gets this completely, who says, the reason why we need a new form of great power relations is we know what happens in the old form, the Thucydides’ dynamic. Biden understand this very well. What are we worried about? He’s worried about an unconstraint rivalry ends up with a catastrophic outcome. So I think we have an open door for ideas. So that’s why I applaud you for trying to stir the pot. But I think there’s many many more Chinese scholars and policy-relevant people, who maybe have been a little too shy in coming forth with more ideas and helping your CCG collect more, because ignorant people like me who only read in English. As I can’t read their stuff in mandarin. I think you may be able to be an intermediary here.
Wang Huiyao: Great. Thank you for your encouragement, Graham. And I think that you’re absolutely right, we want to collect as many as possible ideas, including Professor Li’s, on how we can reconcile the differences and how we can really find the ways to escape the Thucydides’ Trap. Another idea would be the CPTPP, formerly TPP, designed by the US for higher standards of trade, service trade, IPR protection, digital economy, SOE reform, environmental protection and the labor rights. It’s really a 21st century mini-WTO which was initially made by the US during the Obama-Biden administration. Now, as President Xi has said at the APEC summit that China is interested in joining and China is ready to cooperate with all the higher standards, it would be a great area where US and China can come back to and talk about. Then we can set a good example for the WTO reform and really push things forward. We can find a way to multilateralize our relations to avoid conflict on the bilateral front.
So that’s one thing. The other thing that is quite encouraging is that President Biden has invited President Xi to attend the Climate Summit on Earth day, on April 22, which is a few weeks from now. 40 heads of state will be invited to President Biden’s Climate Summit, regardless of ideology and country system, which is a great start. So let’s tackle these issues that we confront. Maybe an international climate change organization could be set up so that we have more dialogues on all those fronts, which would be very great. I don’t know if Professor Li Chen has any ideas to add on how to avoid this Thucydides’ Trap?
Graham Allison: Just let me make a quick comment if I could. The fact that Biden is eager to have Xi participating in the Earth Day event and that Biden and Xi agreed that China and the US would co-chair the G20 working group on climate, and the certainty that they’re gonna come up with some specific proposals for doing something by the October meeting of the G20 is evidence that they both appreciate this contradiction that they have to find ways to cooperate. At the same time, they’re both featuring the competitive aspect of the relationship. That suggests that this is not a crazy idea.
Wang Huiyao: Yes, exactly. That’s a rivalry partnership now, with competition, cooperation, co-opetition. China National Semiconductor Association has now set up a working group with American National Semiconductor Association, which is also great. We hope there will be more discussion like that. Maybe we can resume the consulates that have been shut down in Huston and in Chengdu. And we can have a few good examples on that to build up trust. So really, I agree with you that we need to seek more ideas to work together. But also, at the same time, we recognize there’s a competition, that’s the Olympic spirit, Olympic sportsmanship, a peaceful competition. So Professor Chen Li, probably you can add your ideas?
Li Chen: Ok, so I think to avoid this trap, we can pay more attention to the consequences of the trap. I think probably this is the advantages of the leaders and people who lived through the early Cold War or the middle Cold War, because those generation of people are very familiar with the experience of the Second World War. And for the older generation, they were even familiar with the First World War. So they knew what the consequences of the trap are. And I think, later on, they also developed their ideas about the consequences of nuclear war. But I think one challenge for people today, probably not for Graham, but for young people like me is that we have lived in peace for so long. And some people are excited about progress of our countries, but probably pay less attention to the consequences of great power competition and conflicts. So I think in terms of perceptions, we need to put more emphasis on the consequence of the trap in order to avoid the trap.
And I think with regard to the economic development, Graham was very generous, saying that the US need to learn more from China. But my idea is that the US also has plenty of things in its history for us to learn as well. In particular, for example, in the early 20th century, and even during the Second World War, US production was very impressive. So I think there are a few lessons here one is business, which is concentrated on professionalism. The second is better working relations among society, government, and business communities. And actually, China learnt a lot from the US business communities and the efficiency of the US government in the later part of the 20th century. We should become more open minded about learning lessons from others, which is very important. Thank you.
Wang Huiyao: Good. Thank you. We have to learn from each other. We are living in the same planet. With a lot of common threats and a lot of common interests, it’s totally different from the time of the First and Second War and the Cold War. We are now in a world of common prosperity. And we need to compete with Mars and the other outer space strangers. Maybe we can send people into the space maybe as an earth man and as the community of the earth, we really have to work together.
Thank you Graham for taking all this time. You are popular here – we have over 1 million viewers online now on different social media. We collected some questions from media also.
Sohu.com asked if China and the US can avoid the Thucydides’ Trap, which I think you have answered already. And we have another question from China Daily: “With regard to current situation, what’s your suggestion for both government? What’s your comment on the US-China Alaska meeting?”
Another interesting question from Guancha: ‘the article, “An Unsentimental China Policy——The Case for Putting Vital Interests First”, co-authored by you and Mr.Fred Hu published on Foreign Affairs on Feb 18th has been translated by our website. It begins with a paragraph written by U.S. President Joe Biden’s senior Asia adviser, Kurt Campbell, and President’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2019, “The era of engagement with China has come to an unceremonious close.” When it came to March, we saw a dramatic scene taking place in Alaska where China’s Director Yang Jiechi said:” The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength” in reply to Mr. Sullivan. Not long after that, the phrase was quoted by President Putin of Russia in an interview.
From what position will Biden’s administration engage with China in the status-quo?
There’s another question from China Review News Agency: “There are voices criticizing China being more tough in its diplomacy. So what’s your opinion of China’s diplomacy or foreign policy? What influence do you think it will have on US-China relations?
Graham Allison: Let me try to answer these good questions and I want to do justice to any of them. I think the Anchorage meeting of both parties showed they’re going to be tough with each other. They’re gonna be clear-eyed about their interests first and they are going to lead with competition rather than cooperation or engagement. I would say that was pretty predictable and it happened, we are where we are. Immediately after or even before, US and China had agreed to co-chair the G20 working group on climate, helps you get a bigger picture. And the fact that Xi Jinping will be part of conversation on Earth Day about climate and that this is a process that’s in motion means that it’s almost certain if I were betting, I’d bet 3 to 1, that the US and China will come up with some specific proposals for doing something on the climate front before the G20 meeting. Because if we remember how we ever got the Paris Accord, it was because the US and China first agreed they would do something and then they put that to other countries as the baseline for other countries getting aboard.So I think at least in that area where we understand the consequences, we’re going to see cooperative activity, because they’re each compelled to do this for their own wellbeing. And I hope we find something analogous in the conversation about potential sparks that could trigger spirals of misunderstandings like Taiwan, like North Korea, like Iran currently. We’re actually, interestingly again, the P5+1 conversations would go on next week about the Iranian program in which the Americans will be sitting just slightly outside the room. Because President Trump mistakenly, in my view, withdrew from the P5+1 agreement that China had been part of negotiating with Russia.So I think we shouldn’t be misled by the atmospherics. We should keep looking at underneath all this – what actually is happening? I think what’s happening is an appreciation that this relationship is going to be fiercely competitive, because the US would prefer its position and China would prefer its position and the relative power of the parties has been changing and will continue to change so that would be very difficult. But at the same time, I think both are capable of attending to the arenas in which they have shared interests. I like very much to go back to the earlier suggestion you mention, Henry, that China might come to CPTPP and the US might come back to something like that. That would be a big benefit for both of them, and for all of the parties. Basically we know that trade agreements that create win-win situations produced a bigger pie for everybody.So on the era of engagement being over – I think that’s right. The kind of engagement that we imagined for a generation in which a poor, backward, developing China would essentially follow American footsteps and American instruction and take its place in an American-led international order is passed. I don’t think that the efforts to try to reconstruct or resurrect anything like that make sense so we’re not going to go there. And as to looking forward, I mean it’s what we’ve said before. This is gonna be a fierce rivalry. It’s gonna be a necessary partnership. Nobody will necessarily choose either, but both are baked into the conditions that we face: one, the geopolitical conditions that are shifting the seesaw power, the other – the realities of the 21st century world in which nuclear weapons can destroy us all and in which unconstrained greenhouse gases can make an unlivable climate.
Wang Huiyao: Great. Thank you, Graham. Your advice and concept are very important to all of us. I know that you have many former students and colleagues working at the current Biden administration and you will be a frequent consultant. So your idea and wisdom are needed in both US and China, and the world. Of course, we need to continue to talk about how to avoid the Thucydides’ Trap such as the 12 clues and in light of this new set of the relationship of competition but also corporations. So a rivalry partnership.
Graham Allison: And I think the point that Chen Li made, is an extremely important point. So for most people today, they have no idea what means war. I find this with students that I’m teaching in our executive programs. So there are colonels or they’re even new generals. And I say what means war? Well war as what happened in Iraq or what happened in Afghanistan are little wars. What means real war? So go back to World War II, during which 50 million people were killed, which is just so unimaginable. So what would a nuclear war mean – a nuclear war could literally mean that Beijing is gone, disappeared, Boston, gone, disappeared. Impossible? No, not impossible, it’s hard to imagine but the physical consequence of a full-scale war between the US and China could actually kill every last Chinese and every last American. Anybody who survived later would say these people were out of their minds. How did they ever let this happen? How come they didn’t appreciate what a danger this was? And if they had thought about it, and then they said, well, but something happened in Taiwan, and China did this or the US did that, and one thing led to the other and at the end, there was a war. They would say, but did that make any sense? No, it makes no sense in the same way that when people look at Europe at the end of 1918, when World War I was over, Europe, which had been the centerpiece of civilization for 500 years destroyed itself. So Europe never became a major player in the world again in the way that it had been for the previous 500 years. And why? Because some Archduke was assassinated by a terrorist, and then one thing led to the other. And within 5 weeks, all the nations of Europe were consumed by a war that made no sense, so that the painful fact that Chen Li reminds us, especially for younger people and literally for everybody today is nobody has internalized our horrible, real full-scale war could be and how insane it would be.Fortunately, there’s nobody in the Pentagon who believes that war with China is a good idea, not one single person, I believe it’s not a single person in the PLA who believes that war with the US would be a good idea. That’s good. But the societies need to understand this. And then even the fact the two parties understand that war is not possible, except if you’re just suicidal, even then that doesn’t mean war can’t happen. Because some spiral of reactions pull you somewhere we don’t want to go. So that creates a compelling reason for Americans and Chinese at all levels to be talking about dangers that could get out of control and asking, what can we do about this cooperatively with respect to – what can we do about North Korea? What can we do about Taiwan differences? What can we do about patrols in the South China Sea or the East China Sea. So I think across the whole spectrum, if we took seriously Chen Li’s point about how damaging war would be, we would be much more motivated to be doing a lot more on that front than we are today.Sorry, that’s my last sermon, but we’re already way over time here. That’s all. Thank you.
Wang Huiyao: Thank you. You really give a very good reminder to all of us today because you know for the last 75 years most of us haven’t seen a major war, the kind of war with that kind of magnitude as you said, which is mutually assured destruction and absolutely crazy and of course madness. We should really avoid that. I’m glad to see we had this really productive discussion today trying to find a way to escape the Thucydides’ Trap, the question of the century which is proposed by you, for all of us to be pondering over. As you said US is working on infrastructure and China is working on infrastructure too – can we have a world infrastructure investment bank to take care of the world’s infrastructure, so that for the next 75 years, we have something to work together for? And on the climate change, President Biden invited President Xi to join the Earth Day summit, and both will be leading the G20 climate change group. Being the two largest polluters of the world, we have to set good examples to work together. On pandemic fighting as well, which is probably the 3rd world war, a worldwide virus war, which is also devastating the trade and prosperity. Also, we should really have a larger trade promotion such as China joining the CPTPP so as to trigger prosperity, as the world has become intertwined, like Thomas Friedman said, China and the US are like one country, two systems. John Kerry told me at the Munich Security Conference that the US welcomes China to join the Paris Agreement and President Xi was really forthcoming by committing at the UN summit that China is going to achieve carbon neutral before – not by – before 2060.
We have one-million viewers online today and I want to thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule. You are coaching so many executives, policy makers and opinion leaders and your ideas are so stimulating to all of us on thinking about global peace and prosperity. I also want to thank Professor Li Chen, a young scholar who has carried the study on how to avoid military conflict for joining us. On behalf of the Center for China and Globalization, I want to thank Professor Graham, Professor Chen Li and also our audience, for joining us today. I hope we have a chance to invite Graham again in the future. So thank you all very much, I hope you have a good evening and good morning. Thank you!
Note: The above text is the output of transcribing from an audio recording. It is posted as a reference for the discussion. The dialogue has been edited for length and clarity.
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