There Is No Thucydides Trap Between the U.S. and China
The Thucydides Trap is among the most well-known concepts in international relations. Recently, discussions about the rise of China have invoked the phrase, arguing that the nation's growing economic and military strength potentially puts it on a collision course with the United States.
According to Graham Allison, “when one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result.” If true, the possibility of great power war deserves a great deal more attention than it is currently getting.
China is indeed rising, and by some measures, is now the largest economy in the world. It appears to many to have become more assertive in various theaters from India to Hong Kong and the South China Sea. Does that mean that confrontation between the U.S. and China is inevitable, or even likely?
Not necessarily. To see why it is worth investigating the concept of the Thucydides Trap more closely. Begin with the first part of the definition. How exactly do we define great power? In international relations, it generally means a state that has enough military strength to spread its influence on a global scale.
Great powers are, therefore, defined by their behavior. Less careful analysis often treats military capabilities and ambitions as exogenous variables, things that are imposed on nations or required by the laws of development. Yet throughout history, many countries have gained economically without translating that potential power into the willingness or ability to project themselves militarily abroad. If a state is a status quo power, that is, satisfied with establishing its own security; then it does not need to find itself confronting other great powers within the system.
Those who believe the Thucydides Trap is a good lens through which to understand the U.S.-China relationship point to a few prominent historical examples of great power conflict, such as Germany's rise. Nonetheless, countries have throughout history gained economically without threatening the other powers of the day.
The United States became the largest economy in the world in the late nineteenth century. Yet satisfied with its sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere, America did not seek to globally challenge Great Britain, the greatest empire of the time, for three-quarters of a century. It was only after the Second World War that the American empire began to assert itself in a form that is recognizable today.
The second half of the twentieth century has seen the economic rise of nations like Japan and Germany, countries that have not sought to translate their power into military assertiveness.
The concept of the Thucydides Trap is correct in asserting that when one power seeks to displace another, war is likely. Yet the process depends on what the rising power wants. From that perspective, the Thucydides Trap is not nearly as impressive as a concept, saying little more than rising states end up in wars when their ambitions collide with the desires of other powers. It does not allow us to see a country rising economically and jump to any collusions about how it will behave.
Thus, whether the United States and China find themselves in the Thucydides Trap depends on two questions. First, what are the ambitions of China? Second, can the United States accommodate those ambitions without sacrificing its vital interests?
From a historical perspective, China acts more like a status quo power than a potential aggressor. When American hawks talk of “Chinese imperialism,” the evidence is so scarce that they are reduced to pointing to behavior towards Hong Kong and Taiwan. Both of these territories are considered part of China by the United States, with the only question being what kind of government they will have, an issue that does not, in either case, touch upon American security. Simultaneously, claims over the South China Sea appear insignificant compared to the Monroe Doctrine, the 200-year-old policy of the United States declaring the entire Western Hemisphere part of its exclusive sphere of influence.
Much is also made of the Belt and Road initiative, the name given to the Chinese policy of investing in other countries across Asia and Africa and opening trade routes. How this translates into political control, or what China would do with such influence and how it would harm American interests, is usually left unsaid. Given the United States' inability to control smaller allies even when it has a military presence in their country, it is clear that if China seeks to control faraway governments through economic pressure, it has a very difficult road ahead of it.
Once again, a comparison with the United States is instructive. According to a 2015 estimate, there were 800 U.S. military bases in foreign nations, compared to fewer than 30 for the rest of the world combined. Recently, much was made of a reported Chinese agreement to use a Cambodian military base, consistent with a policy of asserting itself in the South China Sea, but not necessarily conquering the world. Even here, the Cambodian authorities deny its existence, which might indicate that domestic politics do not let them cooperate with China too openly, a sign that Beijing is in no position to exert its will on the rest of the world.
China has shown a desire for greater economic interdependence abroad, to protect its own internal security, and control a relatively small sphere of influence—this is the behavior exhibited by all major powers. It has shown little appetite for the kinds of military investments that would allow it to project its power globally.
Any why should it? As many restrainers believe, the U.S. military presence in East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East has been a disaster for American interests, siphoning off taxpayer money and costing tens of thousands of soldiers over the last few decades for little gain. Why should we expect China to follow the same path to military overstretch and domestic decline?
The economy of China is indeed rising relative to that of the United States. That does not mean that war between the two powers is certain, or even likely. Fortunately, the ambitions of China are moderate, and can easily be accommodated by the United States without any major costs to American prosperity or security. If we do find ourselves in conflict, it will be because of those in this country who are unwilling to pursue core U.S. security and economic interests rather than military dominance.
Richard Hanania is a Research Fellow at Defense Priorities and the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.