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The ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ Author on the Danger of Demonizing China

The ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ Author on the Danger of Demonizing China


china’s economy may be going through a post-zero-Covid rough patch, but its status as America’s principal rival remains unchanged. 

The two countries continue to jostle for influence all over the world, from Ukraine to Angola, while China sends possibly unsettling signals about its intentions for Taiwan.

In American politics, meanwhile, being tough on China has gone from Trumpian preoccupation to conventional wisdom.

Political scientist Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard Kennedy School, thinks this may not be such a great development. Allison, who has been an influential foreign-policy voice for decades, coined the term “Thucydides’s Trap” to describe the historical tendency for established superpowers and upstart rivals to go to war with each other.

(A model widely applied to the U.S. and China in recent years.) 

But with American policies toward China getting more aggressive, he’s sounding a warning. Allison believes default antagonism toward China could elevate the risk of catastrophic military conflict down the road, and that there are better options for pursuing U.S. objectives. 

I spoke with Allison about where the U.S.-China relationship stands, what might be preventing escalation against Taiwan, and the threat of another Trump election victory.

At a panel during the World Economic Forum a couple weeks ago, you said “China is a rapidly rising power. The U.S. is a colossal ruling power. When a rapidly rising power seriously threatens to displace a ruling power, shit happens.

 That sums up the theory that you’ve advanced over the past few years, and that people now associate with you. But you’ve also been clear that military conflict isn’t at all inevitable. As you mentioned, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met in San Francisco a few months ago, and there’s been indications on both sides that they want to cool things down a bit after a tumultuous period.

How do you view the current trajectory of the relationship between these two countries right now?

There are three layers. First — Thucydides got it right. In the case where a rapidly rising power seriously threatens to displace a major ruling power, there’s a discombobulation that, historically, frequently leads to war. In my book Destined for War, I look at the last 500 years, and this has happened 16 times. 

In 12 of the cases, the outcome was a war. So that’s the first point, which is structural. This is baked into the nature of the relationship, whatever Biden and Xi or whomever does.

At a panel during the World Economic Forum a couple weeks ago, you said “China is a rapidly rising power. The U.S. is a colossal ruling power. When a rapidly rising power seriously threatens to displace a ruling power, shit happens.” That sums up the theory that you’ve advanced over the past few years, and that people now associate with you. 

But you’ve also been clear that military conflict isn’t at all inevitable. As you mentioned, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met in San Francisco a few months ago, and there’s been indications on both sides that they want to cool things down a bit after a tumultuous period. 

How do you view the current trajectory of the relationship between these two countries right now?


There are three layers. First — Thucydides got it right. In the case where a rapidly rising power seriously threatens to displace a major ruling power, there’s a discombobulation that, historically, frequently leads to war. In my book Destined for War, I look at the last 500 years, and this has happened 16 times. In 12 of the cases, the outcome was a war. So that’s the first point, which is structural. This is baked into the nature of the relationship, whatever Biden and Xi or whomever does.

China owns every supply chain and every product for everything green and clean. Eighty percent of solar panels, even more of the inputs to them, or batteries for EVs, or windmills. They say, “No, no, that can’t be. We are the leader in green, and technology, and whatever.” You say, “China is now the No. 1 trading partner of everybody.” 

They say, “No, wait a minute, we’re supposed to be the No. 1 trading partner.” So basically, the feeling of displacement leads to two strange reactions. One is a demonization that basically says, “Well, this contrary to what I believe is appropriate. Somewhere in my heart, I believe the USA means No. 1.”

Although we’ve been displaced in some of those other fields over the years, like by Japan in automobiles, and we got used to it.


Well, at first we got pretty excited. Then, little by little, we became more mature, and adjusted to the fact that of course we can’t be No. 1 in everything. I think a natural reaction is that kind of demonization. But it also leaves people vulnerable to an almost opposite reaction, which is clinging to some straw that somebody offers them saying, “Well, China really has peaked, or is actually collapsing or declining.”

So I think the danger in demonization is both an overestimation of the Chinese challenge and an underestimation of it. This can lead to foolish reactions. To take a concrete example, Representative Mike Gallagher, who’s a smart enough fellow, has become so riled up by this that when the Biden administration tried to reengage with China for conversations, he said, “This is zombie engagement.” You think, Wait a minute. 

The purpose of communications between American military leaders and their Chinese counterpart, or the secretary of the Treasury and her counterpart, or most importantly Jake Sullivan and his counterpart Wang Yi, is to clarify where there are real differences on the one hand but then dispel confusion or misunderstandings in order to avoid miscalculations that have historically led countries into wars that they didn’t want.

So the good news is — back to your first question — Biden and Xi had a long, serious, private, candid conversation. That, for me, is a great sign of success. They’ve made it clear publicly and privately that they understand a war would be catastrophic for each of them. When they talk about Taiwan, or when they talk about rules of engagements in the South China Sea, or when they talk about

 U.S. tech rivalry and constraints on semiconductors, they can exchange views in which they make it plain that, while there are real differences and the real differences are things we’re going to compete over, we we both understand that we each have to survive.

But if China actually does make a military move against Taiwan, that’s something tangible the U.S. would need to respond to — not just demonization.  
Oh, absolutely.

It strikes me that Taiwan doesn’t necessarily fit into the “war between an established power and a rising power” rubric, because these tensions have been going on for decades, since before China’s rise. I’m curious how you think that fits into your broader thesis.


You’re right to complexify it because there are many, many layers. Taiwan is a leftover from the Chinese Civil War. As I explain, Chinese actions contributed significantly to them essentially losing control over what they regard as a renegade province for a half-century now. Until the Korean War, the U.S. basically had conceded that Taiwan was part of China, as it had historically been. So what happened in 1950 — I don’t want to go too far astray, but it’s a complicated question — was that China green-lit North Korea for the invasion of South Korea. They’d been substantially misled by the U.S., which had declared we were not going to defend Korea.

Dean Acheson in Asia said, “We’ve drawn our defense perimeter. Here it is in Japan, and the Aleutians and they do not include all this other territory. We’re not fighting on the mainland in China. We’re not fighting about anything else.” So in any case, they come into North Korea, Truman changes his mind since MacArthur rescued South Korea. In the course of that, we end up in a war with China  unwittingly — because we marched across the 38th parallel up to the Yalu — China becomes an adversary in the Cold War, and part of the so-called Sino-Soviet block.

Again, long story to get to that. But, as you say, it’s a leftover from an earlier period. Now, the remarkable thing about what happened in the opening to China, which Kissinger and Nixon did 50 years ago, was that they took a problem that is fundamentally irresolvable — there are irreconcilable differences between the

 American and the Chinese view about Taiwan, and the Taiwanese view today — and they demonstrated that that does not mean unmanageable. So they created this framework of strategic ambiguity in which the parties agree to disagree, and we insist that nobody changes the status quo unilaterally by any use of force. We pledged to come to Taiwan’s defense. 

The details of how we would do that remain to be specified; each president obviously has to make his own choice. But the Chinese have to think it’s possible, even likely, that if it took military action against Taiwan, it would end up in a war with the U.S., and if it was in war with the U.S., it could escalate to a larger war, and if it escalates to a larger war, it could be destructive of all the rest of the China dream. So that’s a deterrent effect. 

We also have to try to deal with Taiwan to explain to the newly elected president, Lai, but also to his predecessor, that we do not support an independent Taiwan as a country, and we do not support Taiwan declaring itself independent, or trying to separate itself on a permanent basis from China. So it’s a complicated combination.

And more complicated now that China has the military capability it does.


I think when you go back to when the U.S. interposed the carriers in the straits between Taiwan and China, at that stage, we were Superman and China was so weak that there was nothing much it could do about it. As the military balance has changed dramatically in that arena, the structural balance of power has changed.

 This is an arena where great power rivals could easily, through misunderstandings and miscalculations, end up finding themselves in a war that neither intended nor wanted. The great analogy for this is World War I. How could the assassination of an archduke, which didn’t even make the front page in New York, within five weeks have been a spark that created a conflagration that ended up burning down, essentially, all of Europe? It’s a wonderful puzzle for historians to go back and try to examine. 

But it reminds you that countries that don’t want to have a war, that understand a war would be a terrible idea, can nonetheless be dragged into one through misunderstandings, and miscalculations, and misjudgments, which brings all the way back to the question why having adult serious private conversations is such an important part of it. Not just president to president, but national security adviser to counterpart, secretary of Defense to counterpart, secretary of State to counterpart, secretary of Treasury to counterpart, and so forth.

Of course there’s the looming specter of Trump upsetting the “adults in the room” dynamic.
Yes.

You’ve written about a “Trump put” in which certain world leaders might put off something they were thinking of doing until they see how November 2024 shakes out. How do you think that’s manifesting itself in the U.S.-China relationship?


That’s a fascinating one, and I’ve been trying to get some people in Washington to think about it. It’s complicated.

What isn’t complicated? 
Exactly. But, this one is more complicated. I talked to the Chinese leadership about this in 2020 when the election was going on, because I’d become pretty friendly with a couple of people in the leadership who were fascinated by Thucydides, whom they had never heard of before. The idea of this guy who was a contemporary of Confucius, and who had these big ideas — they were interested. So I got a chance to talk regularly to some of the people right at the top of the government. I asked them, “You guys are obviously watching the U.S. election and you must have some views.” They said, “Well, it’s not our part to have any views about it.” I said, “Forget that. What are you all thinking about this?”

They said, “Okay. Well, look, on the one hand, Trump drives us crazy. He’s so erratic, and so unpredictable. It’s contrary to the way we like to do things. It’s not businesslike the way we like.” The Chinese love scripted events, especially for their leaders. It’s almost like theater. Trump is all extemporaneous. So at the first meeting between Trump and Xi at Mar-a- Lago, they had all scripted it out on both sides. It was “He’s going to say this, you’re going to say this. Trump just grabbed Xi by the arm and said, “Let’s take a walk,” just with the two translators.

On the other hand, they said, “We could never undermine American alliances in the region the way Trump did.” In that sense, this is their dream. They’ve been surprised by the extent to which China’s rise and assertiveness has alarmed their neighbors. 

You wouldn’t have seen anything like the strengthening of the U.S.-Japan Treaty, the U.S.–South Korea Treaty, U.S. relations with Vietnam, the AUKUS alliance with Australia, even the Quad partnership with India. All those are reflecting changes in the geopolitical environment, and also the actions of China. The Biden administration, I think, has played their hand very well in building and strengthening that set of alliances and alignments to have a counterbalance for China. Trump’s view about alliances is that they are mainly free riders, and entangle us in ways that they should actually have to pay for.

And he has an instinctive fondness for authoritarian leaders at the same time.


Yeah, exactly. You could imagine that they could imagine, This is a guy we can deal with. Again, I’m sure they’re going back and forth, scratching their heads, as the rest of us are.

The other major geopolitical thing going on, of course, is Russia and Ukraine. I was thinking of an analogy with that war, which is that when the U.K. left the European Union, it was such a hassle and went so awfully for them that no other European country would even want to attempt it. Similarly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t exactly gone smoothly. And I wonder whether you think that might deter China from doing anything in Taiwan.


Good insight, and I say yes. Basically, there are seven reasons why a rational, alert actor in Beijing watching what happened in Ukraine would be more cautious about Taiwan. I could take you down the whole list, but let me just start at the top. First, combined warfare turns out to be a lot more complicated than it might seem on paper. That means combining your air, your intelligence, your ground, your naval, so that they’re all integrated. That requires a lot of practice. I’m sure Xi Jinping, watching this, must have asked the commander of the People’s Liberation Army: “Are we able to do that?” And the commander said, “We’re working on it, but we probably need a little more time.” So, that’s good.

Second, American intelligence about what was going on in Ukraine has been brilliant. It’s been one of the great intelligence coups of modern times. China didn’t believe it. Even Zelenskyy didn’t believe it. The U.S. has repeatedly anticipated what Putin was going to do. The Chinese have to be thinking, Whoa, the American intelligence is a lot better than I imagined. Maybe they even have some new ways they’re doing intelligence. The Chinese actually left their civilians in Kyiv before the attack, whereas the U.S. and some Europeans brought our folks out.

Third, the Chinese use a lot of Russian equipment. Obviously, some of the Russian equipment is not working so well because the Russians were lousy in maintaining it. Fourth, the new technologies that the Americans and the Ukrainians are bringing to bear here, they’re pretty amazing. So I would say, you go on down that list, there are many reasons why they would, if they’re being rational, be more restrained.

I’ve been giving 99 percent–plus odds that there will be no Chinese military actually against Taiwan this year.

What about next year?
I would say, next year probably 95 percent.

That’s a lot less!
But you’ll see some article saying, “Oh my God, they’re coming today.” No, I think they’re going to be working on it. This is a dual-deterrence game. We deter Xi from attacking Taiwan by saying, “We’ll come to their defense,” and he deters us or the Taiwanese from declaring independence by saying, “Rather than independence, we’ll go to war.”

So right now, it seems like you’re saying this balance is holding, tentatively.


I think it is, and I think that, if I watch the behaviors after the San Francisco meeting, both in the campaign in Taiwan and the reaction to the election in the military activity of the Chinese in the Taiwanese straits as well as in the region, it looks to be consistent with a conversation to the effect of, “We’re going to manage this and try to be cool about it rather than let it get out of control.” So, I’m taking it as a positive sign.

You said that 12 of the 16 examples you found in your book led to war. Did the other four, which didn’t lead to war, have anything in common?


There’s a chapter in Destined for War called “Twelve Clues for Peace,” drawing from both cases of success and the case of failure.

The case of most interesting relevance is the Cold War. Why did the Cold War stay cold? Good fortune and grace on the one hand. But the fact that, once we each had nuclear arsenals sufficient to destroy the other after we had been attacked, we found ourselves in a condition called MAD, mutual assured destruction. So that means you and I are fierce rivals, but if I decide, “Okay, to hell with it, I’m attacking you,” and I do my best to disarm you, I still can’t prevent you from responding in a way that essentially destroys my whole country.

As Ronald Reagan said, “Well, excuse me, that doesn’t count as a victory.” A nuclear war cannot be won because, if at the end of it your country has been destroyed, you lose. Why did Reagan, who hated the Evil Empire, live with the captive nations of Eastern and Central Europe, rather than try to liberate them? Because he understood that, “If I try to liberate them, I may have a war. If I have a war with the Soviet Union, that might escalate to a nuclear war. If I have a nuclear war, it can’t be won.”

In the 21st century, we live as well in some almost climate analogy of MAD, in which because we both live in the same enclosed biosphere in which either nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions can so disrupt the climate that neither of us could possibly live in it at some future day. That gives us another compelling reason — my survival requires me figuring out some way that you and I can each constrain our greenhouse-gas emissions.

And there’s a third layer of this — the financial system is now so deeply intertwined and entangled that a great financial crisis created in Wall Street in 2008 would likely have become a great global depression had it not been for joint coordinated stimulus by both the U.S. and China. So you look and you say, “Oh my God, I’m entangled with these bastards.” I’ve actually written about it as inseparable, conjoined, Siamese twins. “However insufferable I am, if you decide to strangle me, you think, Well, wait a minute, I may be committing suicide.”


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