China And The United States: The Modern Thucydides Trap?

Rumbling along through rural Timor-Leste, I admire the foreboding bridges and machinery overshadowing the four wheel drive that I’m in. Huge signage in Mandarin oddly lines the muddied dirt roads in areas that you would normally consider untouchable by anybody other than locals. There is an odd juxtaposing ambience of the forestry in the background of the hills with mist lightly sitting above it, and the brutalist presence of machinery and engineering marvels sitting at its forefront.

Shanghai Construction Group and other Chinese engineering companies line the landscape in the same way that nature did. Globalization at its finest? Perhaps not even that. Soft power at its finest was more what it was.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave a TEDx Talk in 2015 where he mentioned this idea of the “Thucydides Trap.”The term derived from the Greek philosopher with the same name and his famous quote that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” In saying so, he implied that throughout history, war is inevitable when two competing and emerging powers coexist, irrespective of how unlikely or likely war might seem to be.

Many people, for example, say that the increased interdependency of the global economy and the spike in the level of globalization over recent decades has nullified the ability for any major global conflict to begin. The logic being that it would be mutually destructive and therefore, not beneficial to anybody.

Graham Allison from The Kennedy School in Boston studied the China-America dynamic as an example of the Thucydides trap in action in the modern era. As a means of countering the idea of globalization potentially mitigating global conflict, he used the First World War as an example. Leading up until 1914, the then very Eurocentric world was interdependent and essentially “globalized” by early twentieth century standards. Travel between the countries in Europe was common, trade was significant, and political interactions were commonplace, albeit contentious.

It is this exact description that befits the current world that we all live in. The concerning matter is that despite what I just described, the First World War took effect, which was a direct result of the boiling over of contentious political relations that underlay the economic interdependency of nations in Europe.

It is therefore Graham Allison’s belief that the Thucydides trap is very plausible even in the modern globalized era.

In fact, over the past 500 years, there have been 16 examples where there was a rising power that threatened to overthrow an existing one. 11 of these resulted in wars.

The scenes that I witnessed throughout Timor-Leste are part of a soft power expansionist program known as the “New Silk Road.” This is a multi-trillion dollar plan for the Chinese to grow their influence in commerce and trade throughout Asia and Europe, often funding significant infrastructure projects as a means of inciting support for the Chinese nation. Similarly, the construction of ports across from Africa, throughout Southeast Asia, and all the way to Hong Kong is known as the “String Pearl Theory.” This suggests that the Chinese government is seeking to assume naval control of the North Indian Ocean through means of soft power influence.

Amongst this context, Beijing is expressing concerns of “containment,” with the United States forming strong alliances with powers surrounding China and thus seeking to contain their expansion.

The concerning matter of this increasing contention between global superpowers is the expansion of a dichotomized world reflective of the Cold War. Likewise, escalation in military actions as a means of mitigating weaknesses in each country’s military force is becoming more commonplace. Conflicts over the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea are just some examples of these.

Amongst this increasingly contentious dichotomy between the two superpowers, Kevin Rudd expressed in his TEDx Speech that broader global issues, such as climate change, were a catalyst to help bring the global community together. In this sense, it is obvious that a global issue that will undoubtedly impact everybody is a means of catalyzing peace across nations that would otherwise seek conflict.

Could the growth of renewable energy across the world incite a gravitation towards a common cause under the economic guise of exponential technology capabilities and lowering prices of solar and wind energy? Could the establishment of global trade on such an unprecedented level, as is being seen in the modern era, actually mitigate conflict, anti-thesizing Graham Allison’s proposition? Could the appreciation of other cultures and beliefs, stemmed from mass globalization, lead to the next generation being significantly less xenophobic and against the idea of international warfare?

Ultimately, the last time something similar to the China-America dichotomy occurred was the Cold War, which saw a hostile dynamic between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. However, such conflict was not just against each nation’s political system, but was also a clash of ideologies: Democracy vs. control, free market capitalism vs. state-led Communism, liberal freedoms vs. communal thinking.

The conflict, although remaining “cold” for the most part, turned “hot” in many proxy wars and political upheavals incited by either nation. The cost of the conflict in terms of warfare and struggle was mainly placed on those caught in the crossroads, such as Vietnam, Korea, Iran, and Chile.

Such a conflict taught the world many lessons. Namely, the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was something that the leaders of the United States and China need to consider. It is ironic to think of the mutually horrific consequences that each nation could bring to each other being a means of reducing the potential for conflict, but it has proven to be so in the past. Could the Cold War carry with it this valuable lesson? Or could the potential proxy wars of the same conflict serve as a warning of the broader, deeper implications of conflict that are often unseen?

The new era brings with it much potential for conflict. Yet, despite this, there are just as many unprecedented opportunities for peace. This ultimately lies in us learning from the past, such as learning how conflict results in absolute tragedy, how there are ultimately no winners in war and hatred, and that ideas such as MAD are still very relevant. Likewise, learning that we are in a new paradigm where technological growth and prowess are reducing the impacts of climate change, poverty and population expansion, thus potentially being able to mitigate and adapt to the conflicts that we could not avoid in the past.

It is this way of thinking that goes against the need to have historical precedents determine the future for our planet and people. Too often are we stuck on the idea that history repeats itself, that we forget how history needs to be learned from and not repeated, which in this day and age is a very plausible way to think. All it needs is the potential to be taught to the mainstream world, which hopefully one day it will be.

I feel hope in the education of the coming generation of youth. I believe and hope that globalization will lead to further education and cross-cultural empathy and therefore a more galvanized world, and not the opposite.