Are China and the US edging toward war?

Have you ever had an anxiety attack about ancient Greece?  Me either.  Until I read about Thucydides’s Trap, named after the 5th century BCE Athenian historian.  In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides observed that when a rising power (in his case, Athens) threatens the position of a dominant power (Sparta), it can lead to war.

Harvard Professor Graham Allison has written extensively about Thucydides’s Trap, and how it applies to US-China relations.  As he put it in a recent talk in Beijing “China’s [dream]… is not about displacing the U.S.. [It] is simply about China taking miserably poor people and making them less poor, and then…  moderately well off and… then very well off… [But] as China realizes its own dream, it’s inevitably and inescapably encroaching on positions and prerogatives that the U.S. has become accustomed to at the top of every pecking order.”  And this competition could lead to war.

Allison has analyzed 16 cases from the last 500 years in which a rising power threatened the position of a dominant one.  12 of the 16 ended in war.  (For details, see the Thucydides’s Trap web page or Allison’s book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”)

Does this mean a US-China war is inevitable?  As Professor Allison put it in the same Beijing talk “let me say this three times quickly. No, not inevitable, no, not inevitable. [My] book is not saying war is inevitable.”

Not everyone accepts the concept of Thucydides’s Trap, nor the idea that China will grow strong enough to challenge the US.  In one critical review James R. Holmes, a professor at the US Naval War College wrote that “The Greek precedent maps to contemporary circumstances imperfectly at best… The trend lines in East Asia point to competition or even conflict. But trends are not fate. How events unfold will rest mainly with decisionmakers in Washington, Beijing, and other regional stakeholders. That — not a simple parable of rise and decline — is the lesson from Thucydides.”

Whatever one thinks about Thucydides, there can be no doubt that as George Magnus put it in his book Red Flags: Why Xi’s China Is in Jeopardy, “The potential for rising tensions between China and the West is high (p. 8)… In less than forty years, China has quintupled its share of global output, and transformed itself from a poor country and source of cheap toys and textiles to a fierce competitor in high-end manufacturing, advanced technologies and military might (p. 1).”

It may be comforting that as one news organization summed it up “The United States has the best-equipped military on the planet.”  However, this same organization went on to say that “Both Russia and China have been modernizing their armed forces, and while their equipment still lags behind top-end American technology, experts say the gap is closing.” Which country is first, second or third will matter little if war escalates to nuclear weapons, since any one of these superpowers could end life as we know it. 

Yesterday, China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China with a Beijing parade as a massive “military show of strength.”  For example, the parade photo above shows the first public display of a new model of China’s DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile.  The DF-41 can reach any target in the world with ten separate nuclear warheads, that can be aimed at different targets.  It travels at MACH 25, or about 19,000 miles per hour.  To put this in context, it would take a little more than twenty minutes for a DF-41 launched near Beijing to travel approximately 7,000 miles to Washington DC.   (Much of the US news coverage discussed the parade’s contrast with continuing protests in Hong Kong, but that’s a topic for a separate blog post in the future.)

Not surprisingly, experts are divided regarding how great the risk of war is.  Now that I think about it, experts are divided on just about everything. 

As I explained in my introductory section “About this blog,” my money is on Michael Pillsbury, who has served as a leading China expert in eight presidential administrations, including the current one.  In his fascinating and frightening book The Hundred Year Marathon, Pillsbury argues that “China’s grand goal in the 21st century is to become the world’s number one power…” (p. 28) by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. 

Pillsbury traces this idea to a Chinese best-seller entitled The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era by Liu Mingfu, a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army.  Liu used the Mandarin word fuxing to refer to the 100 year goal of “China’s ‘rejuvenation’ within a ‘just’ world order… [But China] has never spelled out exactly what the final fuxing will be like, except to declare that it will be a good thing. “ (p. 28, The Hundred Year Marathon.)

Pillsbury does certainly not argue that every senior Chinese leader has a copy of a secret step by step plan for world domination by 2049 in a locked desk drawer.  Both the goal and the steps to reach it are much vaguer and more flexible than that.  But it is worth noting that Liu does not predict war. “The competition between China and the United States will not be like a ‘shooting duel’ or a ‘boxing match’ but more like a ‘track and field competition.’”  (p. 28, The Hundred Year Marathon.)

Others have emphasized this same concept.  In Destined for War (p. 150), Allison puts it this way:   “[Over the] centuries… China has perfected more than fifty shades of warfare in which the actual use of combat forces is the last resort.  As Sun Tzu wrote in the 6th century BCE in The Art of War, “The highest victory is to defeat the enemy without ever fighting.”  And in The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (p. 31), Richard McGregor notes “The Party has no compunction about arresting opponents who openly challenge the system… but it has little stomach for violent conflicts on a large scale.” 

Given all this, what is my personal bottom line?  Are China and the US edging toward war?  Yes we are.  The risk is not yet high, but it is going up.  And, in my opinion, the biggest risk is an accidental escalation of a minor conflict into a nuclear conflagration.  Which will be the topic of my next post.

1 thought on “Are China and the US edging toward war?

  1. In elementary school in Brooklyn, the history textbook recounted that the fact that “Made in Germany” had become more prestigious than “Made in England” was part of the run-up to WWI – sounds like Thucydides’ Trap.
    Shortly after the end of the war in Vietnam, there was a border dispute or something between Hanoi and Beijing; the Chinese simple sent a sizable invasion force into Vietnam, had them sit there for some time until the dispute was settled. Very much in the spirit of the Art of War.


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