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On Graham Allison’s “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?”

American policy of simultaneously fighting on both the Chinese and Russian fronts is pushing these nuclear powers into each other’s arms and increases the risk of an all out war

A Chinese shore to ship missile on a mobile launcher
Copyright: Morio [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Graham Allison’s “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?” is a very interesting book and highly recommended for anyone who cares about geopolitics or America’s standing in the world. Thucydides is an ancient Greek historian who wrote “The History of the Peloponnesian War” detailing the devastating war between Athens and Sparta (431–404 BC). Thucydides’ Trap is the idea that throughout history, any time a hegemonic power is challenged by a rising power, it’s almost inevitable for war to break out between the two. Graham attempts to answer the question: will China and the United States fall into Thucydides’ trap?

Obviously, the United States has been hegemonic starting from the end of World War II and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US has been the undisputed dominant global power in this world acting as a sort of global policeman. China’s economy has developed at such a stratospheric rate with double-digit growth rates for many years until just recently that its GDP is rapidly approaching the level of the United States, though per capita it is still very far off. According to several measures like gross domestic product computed using the purchasing power parity model (PPP), China’s economy has already equaled, if not surpassed the United States. As China continues to grow and demand the recognition of its interests in a manner that is commensurate with its prestige, power, and economic size, it will invariably clash against the interests of the United States.

US strategy since the cold war has been to do whatever it takes to keep potential rivals from challenging American supremacy. As China’s growth continues and it nears surpassing the economy of the US, it begins to assert more forceful claims, especially toward the South China Sea, which it had controlled for many centuries if not millennia. More recently, after the end of World War II, in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan renounced its claims to the Spratley and Paracel Islands. In 1992 China asserted its claims to ‘exercise sovereignty on its territorial sea and contiguous zone.’

The territorial claims of China directly conflict with territorial claims of multiple ASEAN nations including Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, East Timor, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. The US has been acting as naval police to protect sea lanes and referee disputes. But now China has taken more forceful steps to reinforce its claims. It has constructed a military base on the Spratley Islands and it has moved up more missile batteries to threaten US naval power.

US domination of the sea lanes is made possible by its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. These carriers ensure that the US can project its force wherever it wants to in the world. China is very aware of this, which is why it has developed carrier-killer missiles. These weapons are a fraction of the cost of the 13-billion dollar US carriers, and allow China to significantly reduce US naval dominance. The Chinese could fire a battery of such missiles at US carriers and if just one or two strike their target, it would be enough to sink one of them. The death of thousands of Naval soldiers on a carrier would trigger war with the United States. But remember, China has nuclear weapons. China is not going to just roll over. And they have been studying and using asymmetric techniques to develop technologies that would be a direct threat to US military forces.

The Chinese will continue to assert their interests and reinforce their South China Sea claims. This will bring China into conflict with the US and its ASEAN allies. This gives rise to Graham Allison’s question, ‘Can the US and China avoid war?’

This is an issue that should warrant much more attention from the mainstream media, but what’s crazy is how little attention the MSM gives it. Since the election of Donald Trump, the MSM has become obsessed with Russia and Putin, portraying them as the greatest threat to the United States. And let’s not kid ourselves; Russia is a threat and Russia also has nuclear weapons. But the MSM almost entirely ignores what is a much more significant and greater threat from China.

China represents a much greater threat to US hegemony than Russia. But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Recently we see that the Chinese and the Russians are cooperating with each other more and more. The two nuclear powers with the greatest potential conflicts of interest with the United States have become strategic partners. Historically, US policy embodies the idea that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ It seems like it would behoove the US to either befriend the Russians or befriend the Chinese. Certainly, if the US wishes to maintain its global hegemony, it doesn’t want a long-lasting alliance between Russia and China, because that represents a more significant threat to US interests. The US would be best served taking whatever actions are necessary to keep a China-Russia alliance from strengthening.

However, this doesn’t seem to be what the US is doing. In fact, the US is in an ongoing trade war with China, and rightly so as the Chinese have been violating their WTO commitments. They impose onerous intellectual property sharing requirements on companies that want to do business in China. They have obviously been using industrial espionage to spy on Western corporations and steal critical technologies. At the same time, the US has been exacerbating conflict with Russia, particularly in Syria and the Ukraine. The US imposes sanctions and is doing everything it can to thwart Russia by sponsoring Syrian opposition to Assad and Ukrainian nationalists. As a high school student, I took a Russian history class where I was taught that the Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Losing the Ukraine is a big blow to Russia. What the US has been doing is antagonizing both Russia and China, driving them into the arms of one another.

The question is, how does this serve the interests of the US? If the US is truly interested in maintaining its hegemony, as the sole, largest and most significant great power of this world, it seems like the foreign policy it’s pursuing is working at cross purposes because its two greatest antagonists are being driven into the arms of one another. According to Allison’s book, China represents the more significant threat. Allowing the Chinese to grow to the extent that they have and to become as significant a threat as they have become is madness.

I think it’s in the interest of everyone on the planet that the US avoids war with China, Russia or both. Ultimately, if such a war breaks out and becomes nuclear, all life on this planet could be wiped out. Hopefully, sane political leaders would never allow war to break out between two or more nuclear powers. Fortunately, the US was able to avoid war with the Soviet Union, but we can’t be so sure that cooler heads will prevail in the future. For this reason, I think it would be in the interest of everyone to pay more attention to what’s going on between the US and China. Allowing China to get away with unfair trade practices only makes them a greater threat to the US and its allies, especially in the South China Sea. Growing Chinese economic power correlates with its greater military buildup. Although many Americans view US tariffs and the trade war as the US hurting itself, what’s going to hurt the US even more is allowing the Chinese threat to further grow, potentially leading to an armed conflict between China and America.

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3 comments

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AOT August 5, 2019 at 3:34 pm

Russia is a dying nation …its population growth is negative. Russia realizes any pact with China is a fools bargain since China has never lived up to its commitments. The same can also be said of Russia …witness its violations of arms treaties.

China believes it will ultimately control all of Russia and is working toward that goal. It would be better for Russia to partner up with West including America but that does not fit with the current regimes totalitarian plans.

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rickey ricardo August 5, 2019 at 4:40 pm

First of all, it has to be recognized that this is a problem created by our own global, corrupt and incompetent multi national corporate power structure. They created this China threat.

Second, it must also be acknowledged that China isn’t being denied it’s potential as much as it is ignoring all international law, treaties and norms in favor of aggressive militaristic expansion.

And that brings me to my final point. The west and America specifically can either become a vassal state to China and forfeit the political values and freedoms of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the advances of western civilization, or confront China in whatever way it can.

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Joe Mudd August 7, 2019 at 3:58 pm

Rickey rickey your so fine, hey Rickey, hey Rickey.
Capitalism without the restraint of Christian moral ethic is not really capitalism.
A foreign policy lead by the ideals of our Declaration of Independence would have
the backing of all of heaven above, and who can stand against that?

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