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Thucydides Trap not etched in stone (China Daily)

by August 20, 2015 Government & Politics

Editor’s Note: Graham T. Allison, political scientist and professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has written two articles – in Financial Times in August 2012 and The New York Times in July 2013 – cautioning China and the United States not to fall into the Thucydides Trap, where a rising power causes fear in an established power which leads to a war. As tensions between China and the US escalate on trade and regional issues, the term Thucydides Trap is being widely used. Following are the views of three international relations scholars through on the subject.

Chinese idiom can promote ties

If China as a rising power is seen as the fundamental cause of a potential war with an established power, that is, the US, it will be blamed for the worsening bilateral ties. While the US can always say its China policy is based on normal security concerns, China will have to shoulder the entire responsibility of improving bilateral relations. The Thucydides Trap has become a catchword for many commentators because they want to put China in a disadvantageous position and allow the US to occupy the historical and moral high ground.

The term is a dangerous diplomatic trap for emerging powers. More importantly, the Thucydides Trap is in direct conflict with the “new type of major-power relationship” that China and the US agreed in 2012 to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past world powers.

Although China and the US are not likely to go to war against each other in the near future, by harping on the Thucydides Trap, some commentators are trying to hijack the Sino-US ties. As such, Chinese scholars should avoid using the term in the context of Sino-US ties. Instead, they should find a concept or theory from China’s long history to describe future Sino-US relations while laying emphasis on the new type of major-power relationship.

Perhaps they could use “Xuncius Breakthrough” in the context of Sino-US ties.

British philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ theory – under the natural state, every person is the other person’s enemy, and war is a normal state – has influenced Western political thought for centuries. But Chinese philosopher Xuncius (313-238 BC) said a set of well-planned manners or actions, as opposed to selfish designs, can help avoid conflicts and facilitate cooperation. Hence, Xuncius’s theory can lead China and the US toward sustainable cooperation.

Zhang Feng is a researcher in international relations at Australian National University.

It takes two sides to keep peace

Although Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the war between Athens and Sparta in 5th century BC, the West has made it a part of modern international relations. “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear it caused in Sparta,” wrote the Greek historian and philosopher. But more and more modern-day studies show emerging powers may not necessarily want to change the status quo.

The flip side of the Thucydides Trap, which many people have ignored, is that in many cases the declining power has started a conflict. Hence, Western scholars should shift their focus to declining powers.

Also, countries are caught in the Thucydides Trap because of two-way actions, which means the emerging power and the established power both are responsible for any eventuality.

The international relations agenda is set by Westerners, who cannot abandon their “pride and prejudice” or get used to China’s rise. And they ignore the fact that an established power will take preemptive action to maintain its superiority. That is exactly what the US is doing now. This means the US is more responsible for the souring of Sino-US relations.

China wants to build a new type of major-power relationship with the US, because it is committed to peace and eager to take part in global governance. But one side’s commitment cannot prevent a conflict, rather it could encourage the other side to make more provocative moves.

Mao Weizhun is doctoral candidate in politics at University of Konstanz in Germany.

Use reason, not idealism, to judge US

The “pivot to Asia” policy of the US was born out of the fear of China’s rise and, for the same reason, some Asian countries have chosen to side with the US. Which means the Thucydides Trap is already a reality in Asia. Therefore, how China will react, to a large extent, will decide whether the Asia-Pacific region will remain peaceful or witness a war.

If China and the US decide to go in for a direct strategic competition with each other in the Asia-Pacific, it could lead to a conflict.

Many of China’s diplomatic and policy discourses vis-a-vis the US are designed to prevent falling into the Thucydides Trap. The Chinese leadership has repeatedly emphasized that it does not believe in such a trap. But, to avoid a war, China cannot only rely on discourses.

China must find the right way to avoid the trap. It needs to discard its idealist stance on the US, and have a better knowledge of other countries. The more realistically China sees the US and its alliances with other countries, the more likely it will avoid a war. And China can take solace because, contrary to the Thucydides Trap, there have been examples of peaceful transitions, from established to rising powers.

Yet China’s association with and influence on the other Asian countries have been weaker than the US’. China renewed its relations with Asia with the start of the reform and opening-up in the late 1970s. And only after the US diverted its attention from Asia to the anti-terrorism war in the Middle East that China began increasing its trade and interactions with the rest of Asia. Still, China’s rising influence in Asia has made the US worried that it could be driven out of the region.

The fact, however, is that China-US ties still have a lot of room for cooperation when it comes to Asia. As long as China does not intend to challenge the US, it has no cause for worry. But for this, what China needs most is reason, not idealism.

Zheng Yongnian is a researcher in politics at Singapore National University.

(China Daily 08/20/2015 page9)