The Thucydides Trap

Political scientist Ivan Filippov discusses a potential future clash between the United States and China.

The recent statement about the U.S. and China by former head of the CIA and the Pentagon, Robert Michael Gates, provided considerable food for thought. He gave credit to China’s rapid development and noted that “[Beijing] is using the same tools the United States used to challenge the Soviet Union.”* At the same time, Gates assured that the current situation cannot be defined as a new Cold War, since China poses a much bigger challenge to the United States.

The founding father of history, Thucydides, argued that a military conflict between two states is inevitable when a rising power is catching up with the ruling one. By this logic, China’s rapid economic growth poses a systemic challenge to U.S. hegemony. Yet, are there enough reasons to believe that China and the U.S. are entering a large-scale conflict with each other?

The love affair between China and the West signaled the end of the Cold War. Capitalism won, and the world entered a globalist era. China’s massive resources, including low labor costs, a vast domestic market, new market policies and a high level of discipline, served as catalysts for China’s integration into the global economy.

China became a major driver of globalization, and its initial achievements looked impressive, especially those related to fighting poverty and increasing the quality of life. Yet, for the West, the costs of globalization turned out to be significant: Throughout the years of the Chinese-American economic “affair,” real household earnings barely increased, in contrast to the level of polarization in American society.

Thus, voters demand changes to U.S. policies toward China, and the U.S. government finds it hard to ignore them. Furthermore, these concerns are aggravated by the pandemic; it is more likely that U.S.-China relations are going to deteriorate. At the same time, China is not going to play by someone else’s rules. The anti-China sentiments among U.S. elites and the society in general, multiplied by China’s ambitions, are forming a foundation for a large-scale clash.

Those who predict the “inevitable decline of the U.S. as a world leader” are jumping to hasty conclusions. Such arguments remind us of propaganda articles from Soviet times.

Despite the structural problems of the American state and the impressive rise and potential of China, the U.S. is still leading in this global race for a few reasons.

The first reason is that the United States attracts much more of the world’s leading professionals when compared to China. The old “American dream” still looks more attractive than the new Chinese one. The former promises paradise for each individual, while the latter is more about collective benefits mainly for the Chinese. At the same time, even ethnic Chinese who live outside China are in no rush to return to their homeland.

Secondly, the conflict between the communist ideology and the market economy will surface in a matter of time. The growing middle class in China will soon seek more political power. The absence of real civil society institutions will severely constrain long-term economic growth in the country. All these factors create a demand for genuine democratization; so far in history, communist empires have not been very successful in achieving it.

The last factor is the alternation of power. Economic stagnation in the USSR caused its catastrophic collapse; nevertheless, China chooses the same path. The historic memory of thousands of years of emperors has proved to be more powerful than the lessons of contemporary history.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted passage could not be independently verified.

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