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Thucydides Trap: The Makings of the China-US Conflict

What is Thucydides Trap?

Thucydides Trap is a geopolitical theory that states that when an emergent power threatens to unseat a ruling power, war inevitably occurs between the two to decide a winner. Thucydides Trap is powered by the rising confidence of power on the international stage along with the fear of this power by the ruling hegemon. Rising confidence can be in the form of military buildup, skirmishes, protective tariffs, or inflammatory language in politics. Thucydides Trap is basically an instance where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, and one of the two has to give.This theory was based on a quote by Athenian historian and military general Thucydides, who commented on the Peloponnesian War, “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”.

There are modern-day concerns that China and the US are filling similar roles. With the rise of China and the fear of this rise by the United States as a global-superpower, some say there will possibly be cause for a future war. The recent expansion of Chinese industry, increased military presence in the Pacific, and controversial authoritarian policies serve to threaten the incumbent power of the US. Throughout this article, I will explore an instance in the history of Thucydides Trap, the context of US Relations with China, and plausible solutions to avoid the trap.

World War I

World War I was a long time in the making. It was a slow accumulation of dry wood and inflammatory material that was ignited by a lit match from the Balkans. European Imperialism and a scramble for territories cultivated increased tensions when European empires butted against each other from colony to colony. In this case, the unification of Germany and its swelling industrial power in Africa threatened to unseat Britain’s status in Europe.

At the time, jingoism, an aggressive ideology centered around extreme nationalism and support for aggressive foreign policy, ran rampant throughout the nations of Europe. Combined with ideas of Social Darwinism (the idea that only strong nations survive) this led to European nations believing in the infallibility of their nation along with the idea that war was inevitable to determine the ‘winning’ state.

As a consequence of Imperialism and these ideals, alliances were set up in preperation for a conflict. Germany's alliance with the Central Powers of Italy, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans secured its immediate borders and threatened British possessions in Africa. Britain’s alliance with the Entente of France and Russia posed a two-front war and secured Britain’s channel with France.

When Serbian assassins murdered Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Austrians declared war on Serbia. Serbia, a Slavic nation, asked their Russian ally to intervene. The Entente and Central Powers intervened and the Entente eventually won with Britain’s backing and a US intervention.

The incumbent power, Britain, defeated the rising power of Germany- but victory came at a cost. The war wrecked Britain’s economy. Reparations imposed on Germany also destroyed its economy and dragged down its neighbors. In addition, the destruction of WW1 traumatized the citizens of Britain and broke the conceived notions of infallibility that contributed to the demise of Imperialism. Eventually, Germany regained its power and posed a threat to Britain once more.

China-US Relations

Today, the US is often considered to be the #1 power in the world. The collapse of the USSR left the US as the unquestionable international leader. However, the subsequent rise of China and its economy may potentially unseat the US's position. China possesses the world’s largest population, 2nd largest GDP, 3rd largest amount of land, and on top of that, is still growing at 6.1% annually compared to the US at 2.2%. China has also been flexing its economic strength by sponsoring the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Belt and Road Initiative is characterized by the building of an overland “Belt” of roads connecting China, Central Asia, and Europe along with a series of maritime “roads” connecting Chinese ports to all of Asia and Europe. The purpose of this enormous infrastructure project is to deliver Chinese goods to more consumers. Additionally, China’s rapid acquisition of ports and deals with countries allows them to easily maneuver their navy and control the Pacific and Mediterranean. China has also been seizing or building islands in the territories of the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries. This new Sinocentric trade network could disrupt US alliances with NATO countries and bring them into China’s sphere of influence.

China has also created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, meant to compete with the World Bank in terms of loaning funds to developing countries. This means that China can bring developing Asian countries into its influence through debt-trap diplomacy. Finally, China has had an egregious human rights record. Their suppression of the Hong Kong riots along with the creation of Uyghur concentration camps to marginalize the Muslim minority causes them to sit on unfavorable ground with the United States. China’s authoritarian government and governmental policies also conflict with the US’s more Capitalist government.

Dodging The Thucydides Trap

Thankfully, there are ways that China and the US can avoid falling into the trap of war. First and foremost, nuclear weapons may be the most effective deterrents. The Cold War demonstrated that nations can understand that a nuclear war is a war that will be lost by both sides. China and the US can leverage this understanding to avoid a war at all costs.

Additionally, cutting out intricate rules and compromises is essential to avoid conflict. If the Central Powers and Allies had created strict lines and compromises in the Balkans, it would’ve potentially avoided escalation into a World War. Today, we can look at Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong as a potential Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Dictating rules and firm agreements about their sovereignty can prevent the escalation of a conflict.

Finally, understanding the dangers of jingoism and avoiding aggressive foreign policy while checking the expansion of both nations can help create room for them to grow. The aim is to let both China and the US grow but to set limits so that they don’t antagonize each other. Instead, it is important to make war as difficult to wage as possible, and to allow other venues for competition. Instead of competing militarily, both nations can compete in fields such as sports or technology. The space race between the USSR and the US was an effective way for both to compete without going to war.

Thucydides Trap is a trap that both China and the US can avoid. War is absolutely not a given, and through a concerted effort, both sides can become an exception to this historical pattern. By understanding the implications of a nuclear war, creating strict rules, avoiding aggressive foreign policy, and understanding history, both nations can peacefully coexist and compete without conflict.

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