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China, US not fated to fall in Thucydides' trap

China Daily | Updated: 2021-04-26 06:55


Editor's Note: Will China and the United States fall into the Thucydides' trap? Graham T. Allison, founding dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, and Li Chen, director of the Center for International Security and Strategy at Renmin University of China's School of International Studies, try to find an answer to this most important question of our times at a dialogue organized by the CCG earlier this month. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

Wang Huiyao: It's been four years since you published Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap. Can you share with us any new thoughts you may have developed on the subject, Professor Graham.

Graham T. Allison: In the structural realities, it's a rising China that's impacting a ruling US. And I compare this in my book to a seesaw of power in which China gets stronger and wealthier and more powerful inevitably. That's the 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.

Point two, we now live in the 21st century, where the objective conditions… have condemned that the US and China to co-exist since the only other option is to co-destruct. So, two scenarios here. First, nuclear weapons. We also have, in the 21st century, as we understand, 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 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?

Wang: Now, we actually live in a much more intertwined world where we are actually inseparable, it's a twin relationship. We have to work together to fight climate change, the novel coronavirus pandemic and all the other challenges. If we really decouple, we both end up dying.

Li Chen: First, I think with regard to the concept of the rising and ruling powers, in particular, in the rise of the US in the 19th century or early 20th century and the rise of China in the last 70 years, the most important factor has been the home front. That is, we need to concentrate on the economic development at home while solving our social problems. I think this is one of the most important lessons.

Second, during the Cold War, nuclear weapons were extremely dangerous. And I think in the 21st century, we also have other new technological challenges, such as cyber attacks and cyber war, because our daily life depends on the internet, computers and smartphones. 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.

Wang: Graham, your recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine calls for the Joe Biden administration to adopt an "unsentimental China policy". How do you view the essence of the US-China rivalry-as based on structural changes or something more complicated, a combination of fear, value, psychology and ideological differences and even a "clash of civilizations"? Can we really do something about that?

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. So idea one: this is going to be a fierce competition. So when the Olympics occurs, 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, it is the fact that unless the US and China can find ways to coordinate and cooperate in dealing with climate, we'd create an environment that nobody can live in.

Wang: I like the idea of the Olympic Games spirit. If we can organize a peaceful competition where we all play for gold medals and maybe we have a win-win situation. Then maybe if we measure the country by KPI (key performance indicator), by their domestic performance, it will probably be a more effective way of measuring achievements. 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."

You mentioned 12 clues in your Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap. These 12 clues are still largely true and I don't know if you have anything to add to that?

Li: I think the key point here is that if we can manage crises very, very carefully and review the lessons of the competition-not only the leaders, but also the ordinary citizens-will realize that in a 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 even during a long-term great power competition, we need to work with both sides and with other parties to try to establish a security order to accommodate all the crucial interests of everyone.

Allison: And in that… Cold War, 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 the US and China is very different, nonetheless, (they) can be very instructive.

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. 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 learned 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 we might add to the list for avoiding being sucked into the Thucydides' dynamic that could ultimately drag us into a war.

Wang: President Biden has 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. Also, China has set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

So probably we need a new Bretton Woods moment and can work with the US to establish a world infrastructure investment bank, so that we can really share some common interests with the US and to make a larger pie to share and to distribute so that we don't have to really fight since we have some large interests to draw us together. That's one recommendation that I can think of.

The second recommendation to add to your list is the European Union. 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 in a third-party position. They can be the mediating power between China and the US. Maybe we can have some kind of triparty talks so that they can really be a good middleman in avoiding the conflicts between the US and China.

How can we find common things to work together to accept China? Because I found that although China is doing the right thing on many fronts, it's still not accepted by some Western countries. China is doing well in infrastructure, in poverty alleviation and contributed to over one-third of global GDP growth. But those are not appreciated by the public of some Western countries. How can we reconcile that?

Allison: The US could learn a lot from China in infrastructure development. In the period the US was building 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 (19,312 kilometers) of high-speed rail.

The imperative for all of us is to find the way to escape the Thucydides' trap. Wherever we can find lessons, I think we should be all out actively pursuing them and collecting them. So I think we have an open door for ideas.

I think fortunately, we have (President) 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 understands this very well. What are we worried about? He's worried about an unconstrained rivalry ending up with a catastrophic outcome. So I think we have an open door for ideas.

Wang: Another idea would be the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, formerly the Trans-Pacific Partnership, designed by the US for higher standards of goods and service trade, IPR protection, digital economy, state-owned enterprises' reform, environmental protection and labor rights. It's really a 21st century mini-WTO that was initially made by the US during the Barack Obama administration.

Now that President Xi has said at the APEC meeting that China is interested in joining and ready to meet all the higher standards, it will be a great area for the US and China to talk about. Then we can set a good example for the World Trade Organization 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 invited President Xi to attend the Leaders Summit on Climate on Earth Day on April 22. Forty heads of state were invited to the summit on climate regardless of ideology and the political systems their countries follow, which is a great start. So let's tackle these issues that we face. Maybe, an international climate change organization could be set up so that we have more dialogues on such issues.

Allison: 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: Yes, exactly. That's a "rivalry partnership" now with competition, cooperation, co-competition. The China National Semiconductor Association has set up a working group with the American National Semiconductor Association, which is also great. We hope there will be more discussion like that. Maybe, we can reopen the consulates that have been shut down in Houston, Texas, and in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

And we can have a few good examples on that to build 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, peaceful competition.

Li: I think, to avoid the Thucydides' trap, we should pay greater attention to the consequences of the trap. I think probably that is the advantage of the leaders and people who lived through the early Cold War or the middle Cold War period, because those generations of people are very familiar with the experiences of the Second World War. So they know what the consequences of the trap are. And I think, later on, they also developed their ideas about the consequences of a nuclear war.

One challenge for people today, 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 consequences of the trap, in order to avoid the trap.

With regard to the economic development, Graham said the US needs to learn more from China. My idea is that the US also has plenty of things in its history for us to learn from 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 learned 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.

Wang: We have to learn from each other. We live on 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 World War and the Cold War. We are now in a world of common prosperity. As the community of the Earth, we really have to work together.

The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.


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