Thucydides Trap

Don’t presume that tensions between China, a rising state, and the United States, the status quo power, will lead to conflict

By Karl Eikenberry

Like several states in the Asia–Pacific region, Australia faces a defining foreign policy challenge in coming years: how to reconcile a rapidly expanding trade relationship with China with a deepening security and defence alliance with the United States. Given the significance that this dilemma poses for states throughout the region, it is worth discussing the rise and fall of great powers — the dynamic that occurs historically when the expanding influence and rapid growth of one state actor threatens the interests of the established hegemonic power. More often than not, the subsequent competition between the rising and status quo powers results in increasingly bitter conflicts and ultimately ends in all out war.

Managing the intense and potentially violent competition between entrenched leaders and upstart rivals is a hot topic globally in policy, military, and academic circles. The contest is usually cast as one in which a frustrated and ambitious rising state successfully improves its position through one or more of the following means: territorial acquisition; expansion of its spheres of influence; or revision of the regimes, norms, and rules originally written, or at least currently enforced, by the reigning power.

The leading power can choose to respond in one or more of the following ways: reduce its commitments; accommodate the rising power; transfer its commitments to allies and partners; or increase its capabilities in an effort to improve its leverage, which can be accomplished by strengthening the domestic foundations of comprehensive power or by deploying increased manpower and resources into disputed areas of interest.

The historical phenomenon of the rise and fall of great powers is itself straightforward. But when examining the details of this dynamic over time, one is struck not by the similarities of historical cases with the current situation between the United States and China, but by the dissimilarities. The most commonly cited example, the Peloponnesian War, was a protracted conflict between the rising Greek city-state of Athens and the reigning hegemonic city-state of Sparta. The war, meticulously recorded by the contemporary Greek historian Thucydides, took place from 431 BC to 404 BC.

In describing the origins of this conflict, Thucydides famously wrote, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” In reference to this explanation, strategists and political scientists today use the term Thucydides Trap to describe the phenomenon of a rising power provoking so much fear in a status quo power that it ultimately leads to conflict between the two. Indeed, many who fully embrace this theory argue that it is the structure of the international system, not personal diplomacy, which drives such outcomes. 

However, when one compares the particulars of the Spartan- Athenian conflict with contemporary Sino–American competition, it is not at all clear if the so-called Thucydides Trap is transferable across time, geography, and prevailing political-economic systems. In fact, while the competitive dynamic between established leader and rising challenger are similar, these two situations are otherwise quite distinct and the dissimilarities numerous.

In the first place, the Athenian-led Delian and Spartan-led Peloponnesian Leagues were separate trading systems, unlike today’s much more integrated world economic order in which both the United States and China participate. Taking this a step further, Athens did not hold $1 trillion dollars worth of Spartan treasury notes. Also, huge numbers of Athenian students did not live and study in Sparta. In short, Athens and Sparta were distinct and rival city-states with very little integration or sharing of sector-specific resources or services.

By contrast, while the United States and the People’s Republic of China are also distinct and competitive states, they share numerous channels for cooperative economic, social, and cultural interactions. Thus, while it is generally true that struggles between rising and status quo powers historically have led to war, the various cases of the past — and Athens–Sparta in particular — are quite different from each other and certainly from today’s rivalry between the United States and China. 

Still, let us consider the Thucydides Trap and its underlying assumption that the United States and China are doomed to repeat the Athenian and Spartan tragedy of 2,400 years ago. When the trap is examined contextually, it becomes increasingly clear why it should not serve as an appropriate guide for 21st century policymakers in Washington and Beijing as they attempt to manage sharp national differences. Even acknowledging that some of the contours of current Sino–American relations might correctly be seen as echoes from Thucydides’s time, these similar issues present very different challenges and opportunities to American and Chinese strategists today than they did to the leaders of ancient Sparta and Athens.

Beginning with the payoff from conventional conflict, the acquisition of territory in order to gain control of new populations and access to agricultural and natural resources offers less value in the modern world than it did in earlier times. The likelihood of lesser benefits, then, decreases both American and Chinese incentives to engage in combat over land-related disputes. Moreover, the United States and China enjoy the deterrent effect of nuclear forces that greatly increase the risk calculus of any conventional combat.

That being said, though, China appears to see the expansion of its zones of maritime control — especially in the East and South China Seas — as having a higher payoff and being more worth pursuing. Attracted by the potentially huge military and economic advantages that might obtain from domination of vital sea lanes, Beijing seems determined to assert sovereignty over a vast maritime frontier using “salami slicing” tactics — that is, conducting incrementally more aggressive tactical military operations to gradually achieve its strategic objectives.

In addition, there are the external versus internal orientations of the two states. The United States and China are, in important respects, inward-looking. Both are dealing with economic restructuring, ageing populations, social welfare spending, income inequality, access to education and educational reform, environmental protection, and homeland security. It should be noted, though, that these domestic problems are far more extensive and will be much more difficult to resolve in China than in the United States.

Moreover, China faces far more challenges to its central government’s authority than does the United States. In Beijing, very real threats are posed by an overreaching and possibly brittle system of governance, and by disenfranchised and repressed minority groups. In Washington, the challenges of long-term political decay are also real, but there is no question about the sustained existence of the federal government.

Regardless of the depth and extent of the domestic challenges faced by each, both sides, based upon their own strategic calculations, want an extended era of regional and international stability, and are, therefore, inclined to manage their bilateral disputes peacefully.

Is the United States, the status quo dominant power, in retrenchment — restoring strength before another period of growth — or is it actually in decline? At present, this is difficult to determine definitively. The American goal, though, is clearly to recover quickly and thoroughly in order to spur a new era of growth. Since the end of the Second World War, America has enjoyed repeated cycles of retrenchment — under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and, perhaps now, Obama. However, critics have described President Barack Obama’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance as being less muscular and therefore as bracing for decline. Whether in retrenchment or decline, it is clear that if the current economic and political problems of the United States are not successfully attended to, a trend toward decline might eventually become structurally unavoidable.

Is China, the rapidly rising challenger, a serious threat to the status quo domination of the United States or is it actually a status quo lesser state that is overdue for a period of retrenchment to avoid overextension? The United States sees the power relationships of 2014 as the status quo. China’s longer view is that the historical status quo, spanning several millennia, should place China in a much more prominent position in Asia and perhaps globally. That is, China feels it is entitled to its traditional and “rightful” place in the sun and is actively seeking ways to make that a reality.

For now, though, China is a peculiar combination of both status quo power and rising power. Internally, China’s Communist Party leaders seek to retain the reins of political and economic control in the hands of a select few even as they seek to expand their nation’s reach and influence externally as a rising power. Like the United States, China will not be able to sustain its upward trajectory if the domestic political and economic foundations for doing so grow too unstable and too volatile. Eventually, they will have to pull back internationally in order to retrench domestically, or risk the consequences of reaching too far for too long.

One major difficulty of developing a coherent grand strategy in today’s increasingly multi-polar world is that attempting to do so is greatly complicated by an array of transnational problems and threats. That is, China and the United States, in responding to some threat or development not directly related to the other, may take measures that have the unintended consequence of affecting the interests of the other. For example, the ongoing development and deployment of ballistic missiles by North Korea and Iran — which feature prominently in US defence strategy — continue to drive improvements in America’s ballistic missile defence posture, which China finds troubling. At the same time, China’s increasingly aggressive maritime forays in the East and South China Seas are viewed by the United States as a threat to an alliance system that underpins its regional security position and global credibility.

The differences between the United States and China with respect to ideology and values are profound. The United States places a heavy emphasis on democracy, freedom, and human rights. By contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping has cautioned party members against advocacy of constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neo-liberalism, media freedom, historical nihilism (excessive criticism of the party’s past), and questioning reform. In China, democracy is still considered subversive. In the end, values do matter and, in this regard, the extreme differences between the Unites States and China cannot simply be placed on the shelf and ignored.

Historian Charles Tilly once wrote that states make war and wars make the state. The narrative is important. The United States has defined itself as an exceptional nation that has championed democracy and freedom. It sees itself on the winning side of mankind. By contrast, China, feeling aggrieved and humiliated, sees a great need to restore itself to its rightful place in the world as a rich and strong nation. In short, history matters because it shapes how nations interpret their contemporary environment and define their strategic goals. In this regard, the absence of historical reconciliation within Asia still causes tensions that are disruptive to China’s and America’s respective strategies in the region as well as to the relations between these two nations.

To be sure, the future of US–China relations is indeed uncertain. Mismanaged by one or both sides, conflict is possible. However, proper management — difficult under the best of circumstances — will be impossible if leaders in Washington and Beijing indiscriminately cast China and United States as tragic actors condemned to re-enact the Peloponnesian War. To do so would make for a bad reading of history, poor political science, and a very flimsy basis for statecraft.