In the 5th century B.C., Athenian historian Thucydides explained the Peloponnesian War by the fear that Athens, a rising power, inspired in Sparta, a ruling power. “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable,” he said. Can the adversarial couple of this 21st century, with China as the rising power and the United States as the ruling power, escape the inevitability that has been felt over the past 500 years? The diplomat Emmanuel Mba Allo, a former journalist and former ambassador of Gabon to China, outlines the contours and the dynamics of this latent antagonism.
China, which this year celebrates the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party (created on July 1, 1921 in Shanghai) is the most successful development story the world has ever known. Never before in human history has such a large country, the world’s most populous (with 1.4 billion inhabitants), experienced such transformation in so little time. In less than a century, China has gone from the most abject poverty to reach the level of a great economic, scientific, technological and military power. Today, President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” of a strong and prosperous power after centuries of humiliation appears to be turning into reality, even if the challenges are enormous.
The sudden rise of a new giant, a country that accounts for a fourth of the world’s population, doesn’t happen without naturally causing some qualms, even some fear. In his book “In Search of Lost Time,” French writer Marcel Proust had the Duchess of Guermantes say in passing, “China worries me.” Today, many willingly take up this expression said in jest.
In his work “The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives,” Zbigniew Brzezinski (the U.S. national security advisor under former President Jimmy Carter) describes China as one of the world’s five geostrategic players whose strategic choices have repercussions on the architecture of the world order that are likely to weaken American supremacy. “If Russia is harmful, neither India, nor France, nor Germany is pursuing a policy aimed at eroding American supremacy,”* Brzezinski wrote. He stresses that only China has the capacity and the barely veiled intent of shaping the world order so that it better corresponds to its ambitions, which implies a gradual fading of America.
The United States now seems to feel that it cannot take on China and Russia at the same time. In the coming decades, its main geopolitical rival will be Beijing. On that subject, there is consensus even between the Democratic Biden administration and the Republicans. “Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” acknowledged Antony Blinken, Joe Biden’s secretary of state, to senators in Congress, while noting that he “disagree[s]” with the strategy of the former U.S. president “in a number of areas.”
However, the new American diplomatic leader felt that this firmness should be based on a different kind of diplomacy than the unilateralism he faulted the Republican administration for. “We must engage with China from a position of strength, not of weakness,” he pleaded, stressing that this involved “working with allies and partners, not denigrating them … engaging in diplomacy and in international organizations” rather than “pull[ing] back.” Leaving the multilateral arena “leaves room for China to write the rules and standards and to animate these institutions,” he pointed out.
“If we don’t get moving, they are going to eat our lunch,” Biden said last February, the day after his first phone conversation with his counterpart Xi. A the time, the White House said that Biden had squarely addressed all the sources of friction, from Hong Kong to Taiwan, from the trade war to the violation of human rights of the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang province of China. There is therefore a kind of continuity between Donald Trump and Biden on the “strategic competition” with the Asian giant.
The United States is therefore engaged in an all-out confrontation with China precisely to prevent it from taking position as the leading world power.
Clearly, China today possesses all the attributes of a great power. However, it has always denied having a desire for domination, repeating over and over since the time of Mao Zedong that it will never seek to dominate the world, leaving this terrible mistake to the Soviet Union yesterday and to the United States today. It claims to follow a peaceful path of development, without hegemonic ambition, a path based on “win-win” cooperation in the economic and commercial fields, respect for cultures and the sovereignty of states, in compliance with its tradition of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states. China is working with other countries to build a world of lasting peace, collective security and shared prosperity.
This configuration of two competing great powers represents what American political scientist Graham Allison called “the Thucydides Trap.” In the 5th century B.C., the Athenian historian Thucydides explained the Peloponnesian War by the fear that Athens, a rising power, inspired in Sparta, a ruling power. “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable,” Thucydides said.
Allison sees in it almost a physical law in international relations: Without necessarily having sought war, due to an escalation of a local conflict or the play of alliances, the ruling power often ends up going to war against the rising power.
In the past 500 years, the American political scientist found 16 occurrences of the “Thucydides Trap.” In 12 instances, the trap led to war. In only four cases was war avoided. Can the adversarial couple of this 21st century, with China as the rising power and the United States as the ruling power, escape this statistical inevitability?
“As two countries with different social systems, China and the United States naturally have differences and disagreements. What matters most is to manage them effectively through candid communication to prevent strategic miscalculation and avoid conflict and confrontation,” declared Wang Yi, China’s minister of foreign affairs, on the sidelines of the fourth session of the 13th National People’s Congress, held March 5 to March 11 in Beijing.
In November 2013, Gideon Rachman, a Financial Times journalist, reported what Chinese President Xi said to Western visitors: “We must all work together to avoid Thucydides’ Trap.” And during the summit between them in 2015, President Barack Obama and President Xi discussed the trap at length. Despite the structural tension generated by the rising power of China, Obama said, “both countries are able to manage their disagreements.”*
In his essay “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Allison advised Beijing to practice restraint, while advising Washington not to confuse its vital interests with those of its Asian allies. Extricating themselves from the Thucydides Trap would entail limiting the number of unnecessary red lines and decision dead ends from which one cannot eventually exit without losing face, except through war.
A former journalist, Emmanuel Mba Allo is a former spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of the Gabonese Republic and former ambassador of Gabon to China.
*Editor’s note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.
About this publication