Two of the largest economies in the world, the United States and China, have a contentious relationship. These two powerhouses, the United States as a dominant power and China as a rising power, have divergent interests on global trade. The pair might fall into the “Thucydides Trap” as a result of these differences, according to Harvard University professor Graham Allison.
The theory of the Thucydides Trap suggests that Chinese-U.S. relations resemble the power dynamic between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 B.C. Sparta, the dominant power during that time, confronted Athens’ military rise and cultural dominance. Fear and distrust dragged both sides into war.
To reduce any possibility of the United States and China falling into the Thucydides Trap, both countries should pursue cooperative measures instead of seeking confrontation, especially on trade.
In a globalized world where countries are increasingly interdependent, China’s economy has a significant impact on the United States, and vice versa. In 2017, China was the third largest export market of the United States, with goods and services totaling $129.9 million. Moreover, U.S. exports to China support approximately 911,000 U.S. jobs as of 2015.
Given the interdependence on trade, it is imperative that both countries avoid the Thucydides Trap and embrace a more cooperative relationship.
In his analysis of the Thucydides Trap, Allison found that in the past 500 years of rising powers threatening dominant powers, 12 out of 16 cases resulted in war or conflict. As applied to the relationship between China and the United States, the Thucydides Trap suggests that Chinese-U.S. relations are destined to result in war.
However, the United States and China have choices and opportunities to steer away from a confrontational relationship. Both countries are proactive decision-makers, which means they can actively respond to and shape historical forces.
The Thucydides Trap theory is based on sentiments of fear and insecurity; the dominant power, which is the United States in this case, is fearful of China’s rise, as it could potentially undermine the United States’ superpower status. Unlike the relationship between Sparta and Athens, fear is not the all-encompassing sentiment in China-U.S. relations. Both the United States and China have bridged fear and cooperated with each other on the Paris climate agreement and the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions on North Korea. Embodying a spirit of cooperation and collaboration as the cornerstone of this relationship will only help the United States and China avoid the Thucydides Trap.
The possibility of successful cooperation can be demonstrated in the recent trade war between the United States and China. Trade tensions between these two countries have escalated since 2017. President Donald Trump’s administration increased tariffs on Chinese goods to address concerns about the United States’ trade deficit with China. In response, China imposed tariffs on U.S.-produced aluminum, soybeans, fruits and nuts on April 2, 2018. However, when Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Argentina at the G-20 conference Dec. 1, both sides called a truce to the trade war while allowing 90 days for negotiations.
Calling a truce is an important move. Both sides should use the established 90 days to resolve substantive differences on export controls and transfer of technology. However, 90 days is not enough to substantively resolve trade differences.
For both countries to avoid the Thucydides Trap, the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a series of high-level dialogues that address trade and sustainable economic growth, should be revived. Established under former President Barack Obama, the dialogue was successful in creating shared economic frameworks during both of Obama’s terms. The dialogue has been stalled since late 2017, when China and the United States were in the midst of escalating trade tensions.
Restarting the dialogue could provide a sustainable diplomatic platform for trade. Compared with the 90 days established in the G-20 truce, the dialogue could also provide more time to substantively address differences in Chinese-U.S. relations.
On Sept. 25, 2018, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres addressed the necessity of avoiding the Thucydides Trap in his speech to the General Assembly, saying, “with leadership committed to strategic cooperation and to managing competing interests, we can avoid war.”
If China and the United States actively cooperate, both countries can avoid the Thucydides Trap and create a more peaceful global community.
Victoria Liu is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final installment of Globetrotting From D.C.