The Thucydides trap
THE Thucydides Trap is a term made popular by American political scientist Graham T Allison. The term is used to describe an apparent tendency towards war, when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as a regional or international hegemon. The term, though of ancient origin, is primarily used in the context of describing the political conflict between the United States and People’s Republic of China.
The term is derived and based upon the quotation of the ancient Athenian military general, historian and philosopher Thucydides. Thucydides came up with his theory, based upon his study of the Peloponnesian wars. According to Thucydides the real cause of the war was the rise of Athens, which Sparta, the hegemony among the Greek city states, couldn’t tolerate.
In the 21st century, we see the same phenomenon. China’s rise is arousing in the United States feelings of fear and jealousy.
The Americans, it seems, still remember the saying and prediction of Napoleon which he made about China some two centuries ago. He had said: “Let China sleep. When she is awake the world will be sorry”. Let us now examine the Thucydides Trap in the context of China-US tension of the present day. The world’s attention was recently caught, when President Biden and President Xi Jinping met in person for the first time as Presidents of their respective countries on Nov. 14, 2022. The occasion was the sidelines of the group of 20 summit in Indonesian tourist haven of Bali.
The Biden-Jinping meeting was portrayed in positive terms by the international media. In spite of smiles and diplomatic hand-shakes, the vacuous declarations issued after the meeting alluded to serious differences on various issues between the two countries.
Divergent rather antagonistic views were politely presented before each other and respective red lines of the two nations, were asked not to be crossed. The two leaders agreed not to increase the current level of misunderstanding and to pre-empt a new cold war. In the meeting, President Xi declared that China had no intentions of changing the existing World Order, as the world expected the two true big powers to handle their relationship in a mature manner. President Biden must have been properly briefed by his aids, that President Xi could not be realistically expected to condemn Putin, for his aggression in Ukraine. The two sides, however, agreed to the fact, that they were against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine “because a nuclear war should not be fought and cannot be won”.
In spite of all the bonhomie on the surface, the two major power could not hide their deep differences and suspicious in several key areas. Both powers are suspicious over each other’s activities in the South China Sea; East China Sea and of course Taiwan. Although America believes in the two-nation policy and does not have diplomatic relations in the Taiwan, but it does help Taiwan by giving it military equipment and has also declared that it would defend Taiwan in case of attack from China. The recent visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the then Speaker of the American House of Representatives, deeply hurt the Chinese, and they even commenced military exercises around Taiwan, when Pelosi was still present there. Biden had to tell Xi of China, not to behave aggressively.
In a broader scheme of things, the US has created a four-power anti-China alliance- QUAD. The quadrilateral group has unreliable allies like India, whose only aim is to treat America like a mulch cow and squeeze as much aid, out of her as possible. India also wants to further its regional interest and perpetrate its illegal occupation of Kashmir’s held territory. Other members of QUAD are America, Australia and Japan. The latter has had problem with China for the last one century.
After the meeting between the two Presidents, comments by both the White House and the Chinese officials were interesting “agreed to empower key senior officials to maintain communication and deepen constructive efforts”. It was agreed to work together on global macro-economic stability, debt relief, health security and global food security. Beijing, however, between the lines accused Washington of duplicity. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said instead of talking in one way and acting in another, the United States needs to honour its commitments with concrete action”. Then a couple of days later President Xi gave the world his true assessment of American policy. The Chinese President said the Asia-Pacific region was “no one’s backyard and should not become an arena for a big power contest”. Xi further said, “No attempt to wage a new cold war will ever be allowed by the people of our times”.
The nature of the fickle US-China relations can also be judged by America’s National defence strategy that says China was: “the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly, a power to do so”. Only last week, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, cancelled his scheduled visit to China, because of a Chinese balloon present in American stratosphere. The US claimed that the balloon was a spying device. The Chinese on the other hand, called the balloon an innocuous weather balloon and averred that it may have strayed into American air space.
The US not only destroyed the balloon but also cancelled the visit of its Secretary of State to China. China also said that it reserved the right of action, against the destruction of its balloon. What exact shape the US-China relations takes would largely depend on who takes the White House in 2024. We have to see whether Biden or somebody likeminded becomes the President or Donald Trump or his alter ego takes over the presidency. In the former case the spirit of Bali would be upheld and in the latter case, the hopes aroused by Bali may be undone. I only hope that in the Chinese-US scenario, the Thucydides trap is somehow sidestepped, for once.
—The writer, based in Islamabad, is a former Health Minister of KP.
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