Thucydides’s Trap

2017-10-09T23:22:00+05:00 Javid Husain

“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” – Greek historian Thucydides

The defining feature of the 21st century would be the rivalry between the US and the rapidly rising China, which will pose a growingly potent challenge to the American supremacy with the passage of time. The world, therefore, is likely to see increasing tensions between the two giants as they wrestle on the global scene in managing their bilateral relations and dealing with regional and international issues. The most important question troubling the minds of scholars and students of international politics all over the world is whether the US and China would be able to manage their growing rivalry peacefully or whether it would inevitably lead to a war with catastrophic results for both of them and the rest of the mankind.

Greek historian Thucydides pondered over the consequences of the challenge posed by an emerging power to the dominant power two and a half millennia ago while writing about Peloponnesian War and came to the conclusion that war in such situations was inevitable. The idea that conflict between a rising power and a ruling power is the norm rather than the exception is referred to as Thucydides’s Trap by well-known American scholar, Graham Allison, in his book, published just a few months ago, “Destined for War—-Can America and China escape Thucydides’s Trap?”. His conclusion is that war between the US and China is not inevitable but it is possible. Historically, Graham Allisson points out, twelve of such rivalries in the past five hundred years ended in war and four did not. Ultimately, it would depend upon the way the leaders of the US and China deal with their growing rivalry, which will decide whether it would be resolved peacefully or whether it would lead to a cataclysmic war.

One thing is certain: China’s phenomenal economic rise over the past three and a half decades followed by the rapid build-up of its military power, if continued in the future, has the potential to displace the US from its current position as the most powerful economic and military power in the world in the next few decades. A few figures would suffice to drive home the point. China’s rapid economic growth has catapulted it to the position of the second-largest economy in the world in nominal dollar terms, surpassing Japan in 2010. Since 1980, China’s economy has grown at 10 percent a year, that is, the Chinese economy has doubled every seven years. According to some estimates, China’s economy in 2027 in nominal dollar terms would be $24,356 billion as against $23,376 billion for the US. In purchasing power parity terms, China overtook the US economy in 2014 with GDP of $17.6 trillion as against $17.4 trillion for the US. However, in terms of GDP per head it would take China much longer time to catch up with the US. When China reaches that stage of its economic progress, perhaps some time in the second half of the 21st century, its economy would be roughly four times that of the US.

As pointed out in the chapter on China’s rise in my book published by Palgrave Macmillan last year, “Pakistan and a World in Disorder—-A Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century”, the growth of China’s economic strength at such a fast pace has enabled it to increase its military expenditure rapidly to safeguard its essential security interests. Today its defense budget ranks second only to that of the US. The situation is likely to change to the disadvantage of the US as China increases its military budget over the coming decades and the US is forced to apply brakes because of its economic constraints. According to one forecast, China’s military spending may overtake America’s around 2035. A Rand Corporation study pointed out in 2015 that by 2017 China will have an advantage over or parity with the US in six out of the nine areas of conventional military capability.

The rapid growth of China’s economic and military power will inevitably lead to demands by Beijing for modifications in the existing world order, which heavily favours the US and the rest of the West, to accommodate China’s national interests. What is happening right now in the South China Sea, where China is asserting its power, is a minor example of things to come. Its demand for changes in the voting powers in the IMF and the World Bank to reflect its increased economic clout is another indicator of future trends. This should not come as a total surprise to the US which asserted its newly acquired position as the most powerful economic and military power around the beginning of the 20th century to transform the global order to suit its requirements, especially under President Theodore Roosevelt. Just to give a few examples, the US defeated Spain in 1898, expelling it from the Western Hemisphere and acquiring Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Washington threatened Germany and Britain with war at the beginning of the 20th century unless they agreed to settle disputes on American terms. Theodore Roosevelt supported an insurrection in Colombia to create a new country, Panama, in 1903 to build a canal. The US further declared itself the policeman of the Western Hemisphere in 1904, asserting the right to intervene as and when it considered it necessary. In the subsequent thirty years, the US exercised this self-assumed right on numerous occasions.

It is ironical, therefore, that after having blatantly violated the recognised rules of international law in asserting its supremacy at the beginning of the 20th century, the US should be now demanding that China should conform to the rules of the current international system in the framing of which the latter had little role. As the events relating to the South China Sea show, China is unlikely to oblige the US in its own quest for supremacy, especially in matters involving its vital national interests. In the current power-driven and largely anarchic international system, it helps a nation to be powerful so as to safeguard its perceived national interests. One of the main objectives of China in gaining greater economic and military power is precisely to reshape the world order with a view to making it even-handed and balanced from China’s point of view. It would be logical to assume, therefore, that the coming decades would witness growing demands on the part of China for modifications in the rules of the prevailing international system.

The important question is whether the US would agree peacefully to modify the elements of the current international system to accommodate China’s vital national interests. So far the US has resisted changes which would dilute its global supremacy. Trump’s election as the US President on the basis of an extreme nationalist agenda is another indicator that the US for political, security, and economic reasons would resist vigorously the changes in the international system that would meet China’s demands. Therefore, there would be increasing tensions and strife between the US and China in the coming decades of the 21st century. It is unlikely that China and the US would go to an all-out war because of its likely catastrophic consequences for both of them. However, the possibilities of trade wars and local and limited conflicts through proxies, in which the two would test each other’s nerves and will to safeguard vital national interests, cannot be ruled out. How Pakistan deals with the emerging global and regional scenario will determine its own future prospects.

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