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What If the Chinese Are Just Biding Their Time?

Avoiding the 'Thucydides Trap,' but not the way Graham Allison envisions.

When I was a child, and we went out for Chinese food, I always did my best to use my chopsticks correctly. My father would nod approvingly, and intone: “Comes the revolution, you will be spared.” China no longer conjures up images of that kind of revolution, the kind that forced sons to denounce their fathers and shipped its most accomplished citizens off to the countryside to be reeducated by digging ditches. Instead, China increasingly is seen as the latest and most daunting challenge to American primacy, certainly in the economic and ideological spheres but also potentially in the military sphere. Two questions present themselves: Is China’s rise a threat to American interests? If so, how can America counter it?

These questions form the background of Graham Allison’s essential book, Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? The phrase “The Thucydides Trap” is of Allison’s invention, coined to hammer home that the dilemmas America faces with China are not at all novel but actually formed the subject of the very first history ever written. That history was Thucydides’s effort to understand the causes of the disastrous Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta that ruined the fortunes of both states. In Allison’s hands, it becomes a paradigm case for understanding the dynamics of power transitions and how those transitions can lead to wars that leave both parties worse off than if they had come to terms.

A rising power inevitably will seek to revise the terms of international order to better reflect its new potency. An established power will seek to minimize the erosion of its own position, whether by taking steps to counter the rising power or to co-opt it into existing arrangements. These are rational goals, and in theory both parties should be able to reach an optimal compromise. In the competitive environment that exists between states, however, each party’s actions may prompt the other party to take further action that intensifies the rivalry, until it seems like an existential question for both the rising power and the incumbent, and a once unthinkable war becomes thinkable. This dynamic is the Thucydides Trap.

Related: Who did Thucydides Trap? 

If the Peloponnesian War is the paradigm case from the ancient world that gives the concept its name, the modern paradigm is World War I. The major European powers are often described as having sleepwalked their way into a cataclysm that very nearly ended European civilization, but Allison’s account of the years leading to war makes clear this is inadequate. The key to understanding how Britain got drawn into war with Germany, a country for whom it had substantial affinity as well as royal blood ties, is the reality that “Germany’s intentions were irrelevant; its capabilities were what mattered.”

When British diplomat Eyre Crowe wrote his famous 1907 memorandum warning of Germany’s expansionist intentions, the Kaiser may not have intended to threaten the British Empire at all. But once it had the naval power to do so, it could hardly fail to demand an alteration in global arrangements to better reflect its power to threaten the British Empire. Therefore, Britain had no choice but to engage in a naval arms race with Germany. And that arms race in turn convinced Germany’s leadership that Britain was determined to prevent it from achieving a status commensurate with its potential based on its economic and military prowess. And thus the way was paved to a war that neither party could rationally have wanted.

The analogies with the contemporary Sino-American rivalry are ominous in many ways and have been oft remarked upon. But there are also very substantial differences between the cases, and one of the great virtues of Allison’s book is that it forces a reckoning with those differences as well as the similarities. The most important difference: the scale of China’s economic achievement dwarfs that of Germany’s rise relative to Britain. On the eve of World War I, German GDP had just recently surpassed that of Britain’s. China’s GDP has just passed America’s in terms of purchasing power parity. But, with four times America’s population and three times its GDP growth rate, China is projected to grow much larger than America in just a few years. Another crucial difference: China is half a world away from the United States, while Germany was just across the channel from Britain. Britain’s leaders had far more reason to consider Germany an existential threat than America does a rising China.

Those key facts suggest another potent analogy. Britain faced more than one serious rival in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It played a “Great Game” in Central Asia to prevent a rising Russia from threatening its interests in India. But it was also cognizant of a new power rising across the Atlantic. After the American Civil War, the United States exploded economically, surpassing Britain in 1870 and growing to twice Britain’s size by the eve of World War I. However much Britain might have wished to contain America’s rise, it was apparent that this would be a practical impossibility. Since America was half a world away from Britain—and even farther from the key territories of the Empire—Britain could concede American primacy in its own hemisphere far more readily than it could accept Russian or German expansion. In the end, the power transition from Britain to America was accomplished not only without war but with America becoming Britain’s closest ally and coming to the Empire’s aid in its two catastrophic wars with Germany.

The Anglo-American transition is one of Allison’s key examples of successfully avoiding the Thucydides Trap (the other crucial example being the successful prosecution and conclusion of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union). Could it serve as a model for the Sino-U.S. transition? There are problematic differences here as well, including most particularly the vast cultural gap that separates China and the United States. Britain could perhaps delude itself into believing that the United States, an English-speaking nation with a cultural affinity toward the United Kingdom, would naturally protect the interests of the mother country. Thus British leaders soft-pedaled the deep-seated ideological gulf between the two cousin countries until it was too late. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower acted to thwart Britain’s efforts to maintain its imperial pretensions, but by then Britain was in no position to argue.

Allison also does an excellent job elucidating how Chinese and American self-conceptions may incline us toward conflict. While Britain long understood itself to be exceptional, it also generally understood itself to be particular—a distinct nation with distinct traditions—rather than universal. America, by contrast, has always conceived of itself in grandly universal and missionary terms, providing little scope for any other power to have an independent sphere. From ancient times, meanwhile, China conceived itself as being the center of civilization itself, even the center of the universe. These are not self-conceptions that can easily accommodate peer-to-peer relationships with other powers. China’s memory of more than a century of foreign domination, moreover, is if anything a deeper well of grievance than Germany’s anxiety of belatedness for having failed to achieve a unified identity comparable to Britain’s or France’s in time to establish its own global empire.

The grandness of China’s self-conception and the depth of its grievances should not, however, lead Americans to make the mistake of interpreting China’s self-assertion as a sign of any aggressively expansionist intent. In one of the most crucial chapters of the book, Allison asks the reader to imagine if China behaved more like America did at a similar stage of development. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America asserted itself on the world stage in a spectacularly aggressive fashion, turning the Caribbean into what was essentially an American lake, launching itself across the Pacific with the annexation of Hawaii and the seizure of the Philippines, and carving a new country out of the Isthmus of Panama through which to build a canal. China’s unilateral claims to atolls in the South and East China Seas pale by comparison.

China’s aims, as Allison outlines them, are indeed grand, but it is unlikely to pursue them in the audacious fashion of, say, Imperial Japan, another of Allison’s Thucydides Trap examples. While Japan’s goals in 1941 were similar to China’s today—to drive America out of the western Pacific and establish a predominant and independent position in Asia—China seems more inclined to pursue them by patiently accumulating power, exerting a steady centripetal force on the countries on its periphery, and raising the cost incrementally higher and higher for neighboring countries to maintain alliances with the United States rather than operating within a Chinese-led regional structure.

Whether such an effort will succeed is difficult to predict. It’s worth noting, though, that in crucial ways China’s rise resembles that of the Soviet Union more than those of Germany or America. While Britain, Germany, and the United States had roughly comparable political and economic systems and were of the same civilization, China is pursuing a very different path reflecting a different civilization. It remains a one-party dictatorship and its leader, Xi Jinping, has emphasized repeatedly the centrality of the party and his own supremacy as its head. It is possible that this political structure suits Chinese culture; Allison quotes Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew’s observation that if China became a democracy the country would collapse. But even if it does suit Chinese culture (which is debatable, considering that the Chinese on Taiwan have built a highly successful democracy), it may be ill-suited for  the challenges of the next phase of economic development. Allison reminds his readers that in the mid-20th century, many observers expected the Soviet Union to outstrip America in economic prowess within a decade or two. After all, under Stalin the country had not only rapidly industrialized and defeated the greatest military power in the world but also put a man into orbit before America did. And yet that turned out to be the high point of Soviet power, as a command economy was better able to play catch-up than to innovate.

China might be a similar case. Sheer demographic weight will surely bring China to far surpass the United States in aggregate purchasing power. But that does not mean that China will be able to sustain a position at the forefront of innovation. Nor does it mean it will not. China’s choices, along with America’s own decisions related to how it invests its own physical and human capital, will determine the answer. Moreover, China already has built up excess productive capacity in a variety of areas where it needs foreign markets in order to forestall a difficult economic adjustment. It is doing so, in part, by financing infrastructural development across Africa and Asia on an extraordinary scale. Those investments might pay enormous economic and diplomatic dividends down the road and cement China’s place at the center of a new world order. But they could fail spectacularly, as both American and Soviet investments in some of the same regions did during the Cold War. Again, only time will tell.

Allison’s message to American policymakers grappling with the Chinese challenge is easy to understand, but difficult to implement. Catastrophic war is not the inevitable consequence of a power transition. We do not have to fall into the Thucydides Trap. But avoiding it requires understanding the rising power’s genuine interests in the context of its newfound power, and how, based on its political culture, it is likely to pursue those interests. It requires a similarly unsentimental assessment of the incumbent power’s own true interests, and what it will cost to preserve them. And it requires robust communication between the two powers, a mutual commitment to the notion that avoiding war—particularly in the age of nuclear weapons—is vastly more important than dominating any given confrontation.

Britain, faced with a rising America in the late 19th century, concluded that preserving global naval supremacy was not achievable at any rational cost. It would have to accept that it could not dictate the rules of the global game to America, but enlist America as a partner even at the risk of ultimately becoming the junior partner. America, faced with a rising Soviet Union after World War II, concluded that engaging in direct conflict was far too risky, but so was accommodation. Instead, the United States pursued a strategy of deterrence and a kind of managed global competition, in which both sides forcefully articulated their aims of total ideological victory while simultaneously communicating a clear understanding of their respective spheres of influence and a determination to avoid accidental catastrophe.

The United States does not have a similarly articulate strategy for dealing with a rising China, and this, Allison believes, is what poses the greatest risk of a Thucydides Trap outcome. A strategy of everything and nothing, veering between engagement and confrontation, and all under the umbrella of an overweening American presumption of global hegemony, risks signaling to China that we are both hostile to its emergence and too feckless to prevent it. Allison’s advice is to consider all the strategic options, even the ugly ones.

Could we accommodate China’s core aims and withdraw from the western Pacific? Would that truly threaten any core American interests? Could we forge a partnership with China, given our mutual interest in so many areas, even at the risk of becoming a junior partner? Could we undermine China from within, heightening the contradictions of a Communist system, forcing the Chinese regime to focus on internal concerns rather than external confrontation? Or could we sustain a long but cold peace, working with a variety of Asian allies over decades to contain Chinese ambitions without war—and without bankrupting ourselves in the process? The choices are stark—and, without an adequate ability to foresee the likely success of China’s own initiatives, all the more difficult to evaluate. That is probably one reason why we have so far chosen not to choose.

Or perhaps we have chosen by default. Allison’s book was clearly written mostly before the 2016 election, and while a number of references to Donald Trump’s campaign to “make America great again” have been sprinkled throughout, there is no attempt to grapple with what Trump means for the future of the Sino-American relationship—or for prospects of avoiding the Thucydides Trap. But four months in, some assessments are possible. Trump came into office promising a radical revision of that relationship, getting tough on the Chinese on trade while making greater demands on our Asian allies to provide for their own defense.

This might have been an interesting strategy: let the Chinese worry more about the risk of Japanese rearmament and less about American troops in Korea, while we focus on questions that affect America’s long-term economic security. But Trump has already proven a feckless negotiator, while his own national security team has consistently undermined any attempt to rethink the terms of our Asian alliances. Combined with a withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the overall message to Asia would seem to be that America is no longer either a reliable partner or a strategically formidable adversary. If Xi Jinping, whose character was forged in the crucible of the Cultural Revolution, has the cunning and the patience Allison ascribes to him, he will do precisely what he did to win his current exalted position: avoid confrontation, build strength, bide his time, and watch much of what he wants fall into his lap.

That might be a way to avoid the Thucydides Trap but not one, I suspect, that Allison would recommend.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs.