A hypothesis based on a war that was fought 1,400 years ago is keeping some foreign-policy experts awake at night. The thesis is the Thucydides Trap and some people think it means that war between the People’s Republic of China and the United States is inevitable.
The primary proponent of the Thucydides Trap concept is Harvard scholar Graham Allison who was recently invited to the White House to discuss his latest book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” with Trump administration officials. Allison, who has advised officials since the Ronald Reagan administration did not meet with the Donald but he discussed his ideas with top presidential advisors.
Allison apparently discussed his ideas with National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster and chief strategist Steve Bannon, Politico reported. McMaster and Bannon are well-known students of Greek history and Thucydides.
What is the Thucydides Trap?
The Thucydides Trap is a set of circumstances that make war between major powers more likely and perhaps inevitable. These circumstances include a rising state and an established dominant power jockeying for position.
The term is based on the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) in which the two major powers in Greece destroyed each other. Thucydides wrote a famous history of that war, hence the term “Thucydides Trap.” The Peloponnesian War broke out when Athens tried to supplant Sparta as the dominant power in the Greek World.
“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable,” Allison wrote.
Allison examined 16 similar situations in history since the 15th Century and found that all but four of them resulted in war. People in Washington are interested in Allison’s ideas because they fear that China and America might be caught in the Thucydides Trap.
Are America and China Caught in the Thucydides Trap?
Allison himself has written that situations like North Korea and disputes over islands in the South China Sea might constitute a Thucydides Trap.
The Chinese are angry because American naval vessels have sailed close to their island bases in the South China Sea. The United States claims those islands are in the territory of its former colony, and ally, the Philippines.
The big fear Allison has is accidental war breaking out after an encounter between American and Chinese military forces. The ingredients for such an accidental conflict are certainly there.
The United States is conducting “freedom of navigation” operations in which heavily armed warships sail close to Chinese bases to show the flag. The United States Army has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea and a carrier battle group based in Japan. There might be as many 150,000 troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) near the North Korea border, Business Insider reported.
A potential catastrophe would be U.S. and Chinese forces invading North Korea at the same time and blundering into a conflict, Allison told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in June. This would be possible if the North Korean dictatorship were to collapse as quickly as that of Saddam Hussein did in 2003.
So Graham’s thesis is far more valid than some of his critics would likely to acknowledge. The United States and China might be on a collision course that few people understand or are trying to avert.
Some Other Thucydides Traps
Disturbingly the United States and China are not the only countries caught in the Thucydides Trap in today’s world. The most dangerous situation is between India and China two rising powers that are increasingly hostile.
The Chinese have upset Indian Prime Minister Naranda Modi with imperialistic efforts like their New Silk Road. The New Silk Road is an attempt to dominate the historic trade routes between China and Europe and the Middle East. Cynical observers will see it is an effort to bypass India or surround India with Chinese military basis.
There’s also India’s historic enemy of Pakistan; where Chinese troops participated in that Nation’s Republic Day Parade on 13 March, 2017, Voice of America reported. Beijing is also investing $50 billion in infrastructure projects in Pakistan including a navy base at Gwadar. The Gwadar base will be connected to Chinse territory by rail and highways.
A frightful situation would be a Chinese-Indian conflict drawing in the United States. This might occur if the Indian expatriate community in the United States; which includes the CEOs of Microsoft, Pepsi and MasterCard, were to start pressuring the government to come to their homeland’s aid.
Other potential Thucydides Traps include the Persian Gulf where Iran is challenging the dominant power of Saudi Arabia; a close US ally, Mongolia and Central Asia; where China is starting to challenge Russian power, and Africa. A big danger in Africa is China trying to displace European colonial powers such as France and Britain.
Other Dangers from the Thucydides Trap?
All-out war is not the only danger from the Thucydides Trap in today’s world. An even greater problem might be limited low-level conflicts. A good example of this might be cyberwar in which countries confine their attacks to the digital sphere.
The recent WannaCry and Petya ransomware attacks demonstrated cyberwar can wreak a great deal of havoc without putting the instigators at risk. The Peyta attack in late June; reportedly shut down supermarkets in the Ukraine, and disrupted operations at hospitals in the United States.
Other potentially destructive scenarios include trade embargos, sabotage, interference with elections and state supported terrorism. A particularly troubling development is nations interfering with each other’s electoral processes, which may have occurred during the last U.S. presidential election. Another would be interference with other countries’ banking systems or financial markets.
The real lesson of the Thucydides Trap is that today’s world is not immune from history. Today’s nations are just as likely to blunder into war as those in the past. The world’s governments need to devote more effort to preventing conflict to keep the Thucydides Trap from getting sprung.