Thucydides was a scholarly historian of the Ancient Greek. His studies of the Peloponnesian war (431 – 401 B.C.) among Greek city-states led him to a theory that inter-state relations are based more on 'might' or 'power' than 'ideology', 'justice', or 'right'. Through his study of the thirty-years of Greek war, he observed that the strategic relations between states followed a recurrent pattern. Any change of weaker states in the inter-state hierarchy did not affect the political order as much as the change in stronger states would ultimately disturb the stability of the political order and inter-state system. Thucydides pointed out that the Peloponnesian war was the result of increasing power of Athenian city-state exceeding and threatening the power of the city-state of Sparta. Today, many political analysts try to apply this ancient theory to modern world and used the phrase, 'Thucydides Trap', to prescribe a growing tension between two powerful states, specifically about the U.S. and China. A pessimistic view (more prevalent among military hawks) would claim that a war is inevitable between the two great nations!
Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and outgoing director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, published a new book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, calling this the defining question of the 21st century. Harvard Gazette interviewed Professor Allison about his new book (Harvard Gazette, June 1, 2017). The topic is so important that it is worthwhile to extract his salient remarks here before we can get hold of this new book. Allison examines the looming complications, using lessons drawn from the clashes between Sparta and Athens in ancient Greece, as well as other world conflicts. Although he seems to be a believer of Thucydides' analysis of the Greek war, he did not think our current international relation would lead to war.
In the interview, Allison made references to his book, urging Americans to face the reality that a rising China does exist. He explains that Thucydides dynamics would create structured conditions and could cloud subjective perceptions that would lead to war; in fact 12 of 16 cases in 500 years he has studied did so. He further states that a rising power would feel that it deserves more and desire to correct the unfair past. He compares Ted Roosevelt's corollary to Monroe doctrine that the U.S. has the say, not the Spanish, regarding Cuba or the entire America continent, to Xi and how China regards South China Sea not an American Sea. The interviewer posted a provocative question that the U.S. has 240 years of history and political structural advantages which China does not have (this is erroneous which I will address later), have we overrated China as we did so to Japan? Allison gave a brief answer that both China and the U.S. have serious problems, China with her population, economic and political reforms. But over 15, 20, 25, and 30 years, China is still progressing, citing the example of the ambitious "One Belt and One Road" (OBOR) program. Wherever the U.S. is backing off, China is filling in.
At the end of this interview, Prof. Allison states that despite of the Thucydides Trap, war is not inevitable between the U.S. and China. He says that he has given 12 reasons to support this conclusion in his book; a few are mentioned in the interview. First, we can learn from history, second, both nations have problems and people will realize or recognize priorities, third, many problems cannot be solved unilaterally (example, climate change control requires big nations to collaborate; the U.S. and China have to be leaders or climate change control will fail.), fourth, compromise will work by distinguishing what is vital and what is just vivid, and last point, diplomacy will work. Although the interview ends at this point, I do share with Prof. Allison's optimistic conclusion that the war is not inevitable between the U.S. and China. In today's world, communication technology has long surpassed megabit per second level, the great powers have sufficient ability and ample time to analyze any situation resembling Thucydides dynamics or traps and avoid unnecessary risk of engaging war.
Thucydides dynamics after all is Greek history pertaining to small city-states; whereas the U.S. and China are two great nations located oceans apart representing the West and the East. The Greek history may have an influence in the political philosophy in the West, but the East, especially China, has its own historical background when it comes to state affairs. Take the well-known Chun Qiu Zhan Guo era (771 B.C. To 476 B.C. and 475 to 403 B.C. warring state period). The Spring and Autumn Annals, a famous history record (covering 722 B.C. To 479 B.C. more corresponding to Confucius' life span) is not only a history book but also a political science treatise. During this period, the Zhou royal court gradually lost its authority over the various feudal states, as more nobilities obtained de facto regional autonomy, challenging the king's court in Luoyi, and waging wars amongst themselves. The gradual partition of Jin, one of the most powerful states, marked the end of the Spring and Autumn period, and the beginning of the Warring States period, Zhan Guo era, each state claimed to be a guo (nation).
Chun Qiu and Zhan Guo Eras provide rich history about state to state diplomacy, alliances and rivalries more representative (than Athenians and Spartans) to an inter-state society with stronger states vying for leadership and weaker states seeking survival under balance of power. One salient characteristics distinguishes the East political philosophy (which may be called Zhan Guo Dynamics) from the West is that "one should not wage a war without justified cause (師出有名）". This political philosophy transcends generation to generation in China till this day when China has reemerged as a powerful nation. Hence China always advocated that she will never be the first party to attack or to use nuclear weapon and she will never multiply military bases in foreign countries. If China wages war, it would be for defending her sovereignty, a war with justified cause. In the long history of China, plenty of evidence lends support to this political philosophy - leaving an honorable name and cause to history is more important than the end result of waging war.
I believe that China will not fall into a Thucydides trap. She will not wage war against the U.S. or any other country unless she is provoked, humiliated or attacked. I believe that the U.S. has no reason like Japan and other Western powers did in the 19th and 20th centuries to take on a premeditated political strategy to humiliate or attack or conquer China. As pointed out by Allison, both nations have their own domestic problems to solve, they should learn from history and make compromises to collaborate to deal with international issues rather than provoking each other to wage war. As for weaker nations, they can learn from Zhan Guo Dynamics as well, never forge military alliances for no justified cause since military alliance is a clear form of hostile provocation. Based upon the above discussions, we may expect that the international issues such as North Korea nuclear threat and South China Sea Disputes will get resolved when two great nations find understandings and compromises. The war between the U.S. and China is not inevitable!