Destruction of the remains of the Athenian army during the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 BC). Wood engraving after a drawing by Hermann Vogel (German painter, 1854 - 1921), published in 1882. Thucydides Trap.IMage: iStock
Destruction of the remains of the Athenian army during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Wood engraving after a drawing by Hermann Vogel (German painter, 1854- 1921), published in 1882. Image: iStock

Since the end of the Cold War, we have lived in an era almost devoid of genuine great-power competition, but that seems to be coming to an end.  Pundits say the 21st century will be marked by conflict or cooperation between the two most prosperous and powerful countries on the planet. China-US relations have been on a path of strategic rivalry in recent years and that has led to a trade war. Each side views the other with growing suspicion and concern.

The list of areas where the two powers are in increasingly pointed strategic competition now covers trade, overseas investment, advanced technology, and armaments. The trade conflict is really just one aspect of the increasing strategic competition between the United States and China. The US wants to maintain its military, diplomatic and economic superiority over all other countries while China is determined not to accept second place and to achieve parity.

With Donald Trump elected as US president and his “America first” foreign-policy mantle, and Xi Jinping emerging from the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) ever more powerful and vowing to rejuvenate and make his country even stronger, the countries’  bilateral relations have entered a period of turbulence and uncertainty. Consequently, people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean are beginning to talk about the “Thucydides Trap” – when a rising power instills fear in an established power, which escalates toward war.

Harvard professor Graham Allison, after examining the 16 power transition cases for the last 500 years, found that 12 of the cases ended in war, with only four of them transiting peacefully. He argued that war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognized at the moment. Indeed, judging by the historical record, war is more likely than not.”

His statement reflected on Xi’s nationalist “China Dream,” which does not fit well with Trump’s nativist “America first” agenda. China’s growing power and expansive ambitions are eclipsing and eroding US leadership in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, and China’s initiatives are competitors or even alternatives to American programs, initiatives, institutions and even the US-led order in the region.

Xi’s China Dream hymn, portrayed as “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” is strictly linked not only to Made in China 2025, internally, but also, externally, to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the organizing concept of Chinese foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

In 2012, when visiting an exhibition featuring China’s Road to Rejuvenation, Xi first put forward the idea of the China Dream: “We are confident that the goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects by the time of the CPC’s 100th anniversary … and China’s Dream of the grand national rejuvenation will surely come true.”

Basically, there are two dimensions of the China Dream: one is a prosperous society, and the other is a strong military commensurate with its economic power and able to defend its increasing interests, forcefully if necessary; for example, in a confrontation with Taiwan. To build a prosperous society means domestic economic development is still a top priority for the Chinese government. Building a strong army means the Chinese aspire to achieve the hard power necessary to defend its interests.

Since the commencement of the China Dream, we have experienced a transitional Chinese policy in the domestic and international arenas where China’s assertive role has been perceived in the West as a growing menace. Under the BRI’s multibillion-dollar investment program abroad, millions of people are traveling and working overseas, and factories, pipelines and economic corridors are under construction. Given China’s huge demand for energy and heavy dependence on foreign oil, the bulk of which is shipped by sea, it has to diversify its oil imports and avoid a possible “Malacca Dilemma,” a term coined by then-president Hu Jintao in 2003 to describe the PRC’s over-reliance on the Malacca Straits – through which 80% of China’s oil imports pass.

Source: US Energy Information Administration.

To do so, China has signed numerous energy deals with Russia and Iran, countries that are hostile to the US, and built multiple oil and gas pipelines through Central Asia, Pakistan, Myanmar, and elsewhere to safeguard its energy security. Considering all these economic and security interests, China tends to increase its military presence beyond its borders to secure manpower and assets. As a result, the first Chinese overseas military base has been established, in Djibouti.

To accelerate soft power as a part of China’s global grand vision, it has established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to provide financial services for the construction of infrastructure in the Eurasian region and beyond, which is seen by the West as a tentative challenge and competitor to the US-dominated Bretton Woods institutions.

Since the commencement of the “China Dream,” we have experienced a transitional Chinese policy in the domestic and international arenas where China’s assertive role has been perceived in the West as a growing menace

In addition, the China model is becoming popular in developing countries where mere “economic development” takes priority over progress on other socio-democratic fronts. From the US perspective, these are not purely economic or development initiatives, but a larger geo-economic and geopolitical scheme in disguise, which aims to dislodge US influence and replace it with a China-centric order or influence over the Eurasia landmass and the Indo-Pacific maritime corridor.

On the military front, over the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army has been transformed into a capable, modern and combat-ready force, which has improved its relative capabilities in many critical areas. All fitted out, China’s second aircraft carrier – and the first built entirely in China – is set to sail for sea trials. The construction of the aircraft carrier represents a significant milestone in China’s steady rise as a major blue-water naval power. Moreover, barring any hiccups, Beijing will continue its ascent in the following decade to the degree that it challenges the United States for naval supremacy – at least in East Asia.

Reflecting these mounting tensions, an incident happened recently in which a Chinese Luyang-class destroyer sailed within 41 meters of the USS Decatur in an operation described by Washington as “unsafe and unprofessional” and by Beijing as a necessary defense of its territory. In response, the US Pacific Fleet has drawn up a plan for a major show of force as a warning to China that will indicate its determination to counter Beijing’s military activity amid rising tension over the disputed South China Sea.

This process of tit-for-tat could escalate into a dangerous scenario. In the lens of this dynamic, misperceptions are magnified, miscalculations multiplied and risks of escalation amplified, as history shows.

Japan was rising in the 1930s, rivaling the US, which was the predominant power in the Western Pacific and maintained an open-door policy. As Japan grew stronger, the US tried to contain its expansion. Initially, the US imposed economic tariffs, and then an embargo on exports of high-grade scrap iron and aviation fuel to Japan. And finally, in 1940, it imposed an embargo on oil, which the Japanese believed would strangle them slowly. Under those conditions, Imperial Japan concluded that it was better to attack America.

Growing tensions on all fronts between China and the US lead us to wonder whether the world’s great powers are again falling into a Thucydides Trap.

Many observers think the Japanese case is mirrored by the China-US rivalry since we have seen fundamental policy shifts on both sides. But war can be avoided. Professor Graham advised, “The first step to escaping the ‘Thucydides Trap’ is to recognize the trap and how dangerous it is if we slip into the trap.”

Anu Anwar

Anu Anwar is a fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a non-resident associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. He is pursuing a PhD at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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