Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Friday, December 15th, 2017

The Thucydides Trap and Sino-US Relations

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The Thucydides Trap and Sino-US Relations

Thucydides, a Greek historian, who recounted the 5th century BC war between Sparta and Athens in The History of Peloponnesian War and wrote that the rising power of Athens had spawned fears in Sparta, the already established dominant power. The Sparta felt threatened by the rising power of Athens that prompted the former for waging war with the latter.
An American political scientist and Harvard University professor G. T. Allison coined the phrase “Thucydides Trap” to describe the phenomenon of conflict between a rising power and an already established dominant power.
History has witnessed these types of conflicts between the rising power and an already established dominant power of the time. With Russia being fallen out of the arena after its economy faltered leading to the collapse of the then USSR, now China, a rising power, has sent shock waves across Europe and USA. Although USA and China over the last several decades have maintained a rapprochement and the current Xi Jinping and Trump summits may be conducive to avoid the Thucydides Trap, with Trump striving to secure China’s cooperation to cope with the nuclear threat of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and to rectify the imbalance in US-China trade. However this liaison may get embittered once Trump realizes that his aims could not be achieved in near term. However, the Thucydides Trap may not include Conventional war but definitely it will envisage stifling the rising economy of China and reasserting Uncle Sam’s Asian Pivot.
After 9/11, relations between Washington and Beijing appeared to be rising steadily for following four years. The decision makers in US focused their attention on the looming dangers of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. They felt less bothered to view China as an actual or potential strategic competitor and hoped that, in the post 9/11 world, all the great powers would be brought together by the common dangers of terrorism and proliferation.
However, when President George W. Bush assumed office for his second term, there were signs of increasing conflicts between Washington and Beijing and increasing skepticism, on the US side at least, that the relationship and interests of the two countries were as harmonious, as had often been claimed. Alarm over the possible lifting of the European arms embargo helped to draw renewed attention to the pace and scope of China’s military buildup. Frustration with stalled negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program caused some observers to question whether Beijing truly shared the U.S. commitment to halting proliferation. Reports of a waxing PRC’s influence in Southeast Asia stirred fears of waning U.S. influence and incipient Chinese regional hegemony. Meanwhile, evidence that China was expanding its interactions with Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East raised the specter of a new global rivalry for power and influence.
During Obama administration the relationship between USA and China was tense due to sharp differences over economic and trade issues, cyberattacking, Beijing’s assertive maneuvers in the South China Sea.
During election campaign, Trump seesawed between accusing China of “raping” the US on trade, threatening to walk away from America’s alliances in East Asia and mulling over the idea of making a great bargain with China where US would accept China’s rise as a quid pro quo if China did not threaten the status quo in Asia.
But a month after assuming the office, President Trump had alluded that matters could get even more contentious, as his administration has vowed to put more military might in Asia and to impose high tariffs on Chinese goods. China could respond with its own befitting punitive measures. While Mr. Trump’s advisers say that China has more to lose than the United States in a trade war. Visiting American businessmen were told by Chinese officials that Beijing was prepared with lists of punitive options they would take against the United States if Washington took the initiative.
A new report by a bipartisan task force of prominent China specialists has warned of dire consequences, including the possibility of a trade war or an armed skirmish, unless the United States can find a more effective way to engage China.
In Trump’s administration China is considered more as a competitor than a partner. Their policies would be focused to contain China, and if needed, to confront it. USA would have to reassert herself as the real Asian power. The US will continue its attempts to exploit China’s maritime disputes in South China Sea and encircle China by forming military alliances around China’s periphery to galvanize resistance against China’s influence in the region. It has established military alliances with a number of military significant states, including three of Asia’s largest powers: Japan, India and Australia. Mr. Trump has suggested that the One China policy, under which the government of Beijing not Taiwan has been recognized by US, is not sacrosanct.
Although US has outstripped the world economically, militarily and technologically but China is moving faster to compete USA in these fields. Xi Jinping has said he wants Asians to rule Asia, which can be translated into a desire to see China rule Asia. Recently he outlined China’s objectives to be a moderately prosperous country, fully modern economy and society by 2035 and a global leader by 2050. On the other hand Donald Trump’s slogan “America First” indicates strong determination on the part of Donald Trump to win back the economic, political and strategic pre-eminence which the US enjoyed over the last several decades.
China is investing trillion of dollars under the historic Belt and Road Initiative of which CPEC is a project which will transform China from one-ocean to two-ocean power. As China’s economy is boosting so it will pursue its interests more robustly and will not bend before America. America has shown reservations on CPEC which she claims to be passing across a disputed territory.
The US retains a significant military edge over China. Its $600 billion military budget is more than four times larger than China’s. America is possessing and developing latest weapon systems. However, China is rapidly developing the capacity to confront or neutralize America’s military advantage.
This rivalry would leave a profound mark on global peace and stability of this century. There is every reason to hope that Sino-US relation will follow a smoother and peaceful course. But neither history nor theory can provide assurances that it will be so. The two presidents should discourage efforts by either nation to bolster its own security that causes the other to feel less secure. This must not become a strategic rivalry, instead they should develop understanding and promote pragmatic cooperation in areas such as UN peacekeeping missions and counterterrorism operations. They should negotiate and renegotiate the boundaries of their power and influence, but also develop a shared understanding of their global roles and responsibilities to avoid falling into the so-called Thucydides Trap, the often-cited cycle of struggle between rising and established powers.

Shakir wazir is a freelance columnist based in Pakistan. He can be reached at the shakirwazir23@gmail.com

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