US-China’s Thucydides Trap: Reality or Misleading Hypothesis?

By: Tsalsa Aulia Rahmadani

The rise of China brought many changes in the global political order. Not only It not only caused a shift in the world’s economic and political axis to Asia.It also gave an emancipatory movement of the global south towards the domination of the global north global north’s domination. This revival also marks the emergence of the global multipolar order replacing the unipolar order which has been maintained by the global hegemon state, the United States of America. As a result, China’s revival has triggered tensions and rivalries between the US and China in various fields. The US feels its position as a hegemon is threatened and China is growing and expanding its influence. This situation can be seen through the framework of the Thucydides Trap theory which locks relations between the US and China in tension and leads to an inevitable war. Regarding the rivalry between the US and China, this essay will discuss that the Thucydides Trap is reality and currently happening in the global political order. .

The Thucydides Trap is a concept popularized by Harvard University Professor Graham Allison to explain the relationship between the US and China today. Allison (2015) bases his analysis on the thoughts of the Athenian historian, Thucydides, who stated, “the growing power of Athens and the fear it caused in Sparta made war inevitable.” Thucydides focuses his analysis on the structural pressures in the world political order caused by rapid shifts in the balance between the two competing powers. On the one hand, there are rising power countries with their implications and desire for greater influence. On the other hand, there is fear, insecurity, and a determination to maintain the status quo of the dominant ruling power.

The Thucydides Trap depicts the global order imagined by classical realists. Classical realism views the state as a central entity in international politics and it is rooted in human nature in seeking to achieve its interests. State behavior in international politics is driven by a lust for power that arises from greed and ambition (Heywood, 2011). This lust is manifested through the aggressive nature of humans which then creates a global order that is closely related to the endless cycle of war and conflict. War is endless because human desires are unlimited, while the resources to satisfy them are always limited, giving rise to struggles and competition which are expressed through military power (Baylis et al., 2014).

In addition, realists believe that history repeats itself, showing that interactions between countries have certain patterns. This can be seen in Allison’s (2015) argument which describes the current rivalry between US and China as the same rivalry between Sparta and Athens in the past. Thucydides explained that Sparta’s national interest, like that of all nations, was its survival and the changing distribution of power threatens its existence. Sparta also did not want to lose its power because if that happened, Sparta would not be dominant anymore. So Sparta was “greedy” because it hoped for continuous power. Therefore, Sparta then went to war to prevent itself from being conquered by Athens. Thucydides also explains that Athens felt compelled to pursue power to maintain the rise and influence that the country had gained (Baylis et al., 2014). Similar prescriptions are used in the rivalry between the US and China. The US as a hegemonic country tries to fight for its national interests, that is to maintain its security, position, and influence as a dominant country and a global “leader”. On the other hand, China is trying to emerge as a “new regional axis” by continuously increasing its political, economic, and military capacities.

China’s rise is carried out through various policies. First, China is increasingly leading international forums when the US is turning away and starting to become isolationist under the Trump’s administration the Trump administration. China’s internationalism has offered an alternative to the currently sluggish liberal international order, giving China increasing influence and confidence to emerge as more than just a “regional rising power” (Peters et al., 2020). Second, China has further strengthened its military capacity by increasing its defense budget. Based on The Military Balance published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, in 2012 China’s defense spending was 18.7 percent of the US, but in 2015 China was 24.4 percent and 27.5 percent of the US in 2021 (Moore, 2017). This means that the gap between the two countries’ defense budgets is narrowing. Third, China is strengthening its strategic relationship with Russia. In June 2016, Russia and China’s naval vessels conducted joint exercises in the waters adjacent to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which are disputed between Japan and China. The joint exercise is a signal that Russia is willing to provide, at least, symbolic support for China’s maritime claims in the region.

China’s actions certainly have important implications for its relations with the US and other global north countries, creating growing tensions and the potential for war to become inevitable. The increase in China’s defense budget shows the country’s intention to prepare for the war that may occur in the future. In addition, the relationship between China and Russia poses the greatest concern for the US. This relationship has demonstrated the willingness of China and Russia to cooperate in countering the domination of the US, both in the United Nations Security Council (for example, blocking the actions of the US in Syria and Iran), in international media trends (i.e., promoting strong media censorship by the state), in aggressive hacking campaigns against the US (e.g China’s attacks on US high-tech companies and Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton) and others (Moore, 2017). This justifies the global order described by the Thucydides Trap and that the US and China have been trapped in.

Coming from the realist perspective, many scholars also view the Thucydides Trap as a misleading prescription (Peters et al., 2020). The Thucydides Trap, as a geopolitical analysis tool, is considered inadequate because it exclusively refers to the history of power growth in terms of the global north’s strategic military and shows little sensitivity to how China frames its relationship with the US and whether China sees the future as the Thucydides Trap assumes. However, according to China, the Thucydides Trap does not exist, in line with the statement made by President Xi Jinping at a meeting in Seattle in 2015, “There is no such thing as a Thucydides Trap in the world. But if major powers repeatedly make strategic miscalculations, they may set such traps for themselves” (Er, 2016). In this context, the history of the global north shows that a developing country will use excessive force to establish or maintain its international status. However, China argues that this premise does not fit well with China’s historical tradition of using the philosophical model of “Yin and Yang Dialectic,” explaining why the country, both historically and today, chose to rise peacefully. In contrast to the conflict and confrontation style of the global north, China insists that it tends to view the global order through a cosmopolitan perspective to create a unified and harmonious world society. This is evidenced by the concept of Community of Common Destiny (CCD) which aims to create a multipolar world, not the preservation of the US-China dichotomy trapped in a bipolar system. One form of implementing this concept is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) policy which focuses on cooperation, communication, partnership, and creating mutually beneficial situations (Mastro, 2019 in Peters et al., 2020).

In its relationship with the US, China has also begun to offer a conception of multipolarity and a more emancipatory transformation of the international system. Xi Jinping has proposed a “New Type of Major Power Relations” (NTMPR) based on a positive-sum game of mutual benefit and respect rather than a zero-sum game that leads to competition and war. NTMPR is implemented in various cooperative efforts between the US and China in various fields. Recently, the US and China finally signed a trade agreement containing China’s agreement to import more goods from the US and better protect American companies’ intellectual property rights (Desbordes & Munier, 2020). This shows that China’s proposed cosmopolitan order is starting to be welcomed by the US, breaking the conflicted global order of the Thucydides Trap assumption.

From these two opinions, this essay argues that the realism assumption about the Thucydides Trap occurring in the global political order makes more sense to describe the current relationship between the US and China. Although China insists that its rise was never aimed at becoming a global hegemon or displacing the US, in fact, China’s actions often contradict this assertion. One example is China’s aggressiveness in various territorial disputes with its neighbors, which contradicts Beijing’s peaceful rhetoric. In addition, strategic cooperation between the US and China is likely to be difficult to establish. The deficit of trust between the two countries covers almost everything that bilateral cooperation is trying to achieve, whether it concerns trade, space, cyber issues, or security relations (Moore, 2017). This lack of trust can hinder or even prevent cooperation. In addition, the US’ “moral exceptionalism” thinking that imagines itself as a force for global goodwill encourages that country to reject the implementation of multipolarism proposed by China. This has implications for power struggles and persistent tensions, justifying the realist global order of the Thucydides Trap.

The rivalry between the US and China is indeed very interesting to analyze from various perspectives. On the one hand, the realist perspective tends to believe in the Thucydides Trap order in the relations between the two countries which leads to a power struggle typical of classical realism. On the other hand, many have attempted to dismantle the assumptions of colonial bias in the Thucydides Trap analysis and consider China’s point of view that craves a cosmopolitan world order rather than an order filled with confrontation and conflict. Apart from these two opinions, the US-China rivalry does need to be analyzed further. This is inseparable from the potential for conflict between the two, which is very large, so it is important to consider efforts to overcome it because the conflict between the US and China will significantly impact the global order in the future.

Tsalsa Aulia is a member of the Event and Program division of FPCI UGM. This essay represents her own views and not necessarily those of FPCI UGM.

REFERENCES

Allison, G. (2015, September 24). The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War? The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydides-trap/406756/.

Baylis, J., Smith, S., & Owens, P. (2014). The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations (6th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Desbordes, R. & Munier, F. (2020, June 15). Thucydides Trap or Endogenous Oscillation? Through What Interpretive Should China-United States Relations Be Viewed? https://knowledge.skema.edu/thucydides-trap-or-endogenous-oscillation-through-what-interpretive-should-china-united-states-relations-be-viewed/.

Er, L. P. (2016). China, the United States, Alliances, and War: Avoiding the Thucydides Trap? Asian Affairs: An American Review, 43(2), 36–46. https://doi.org/10.1080/00927678.2016.1150765.

Heywood, A. (2011). Global Politics. Palgrave Macmillan.

Moore, G. J. (2017). Avoiding a Thucydides Trap in Sino-American Relations (…and 7 Reasons Why that Might be Difficult). Asian Security, 13(2), 98–115. https://doi.org/10.1080/14799855.2017.1286162.

Peters, M. A., Green, B., Mou, C., Hollings, S., Ogunniran, M. O., Rizvi, F., Rider, S., & Tierney, R. (2020). US-China Rivalry and ‘Thucydides’ Trap’: Why This is a Misleading Account. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2020.1799739.

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