The unprecedented rise of the Peoples Republic of China as an economic giant and its growing military capability has, to put it mildly, unsettled the current global hegemon – the United States. The US political class transmits the threat perception to its citizens as a danger bordering moral panic, fuelled by undercurrents of the 19th and early 20th Centuries xenophobic hysteria over a (Chinese/Japanese) “Yellow Peril” that has been rehashed and reinforced during the Covid-19 pandemic by exploiting the so-called “Wuhan Virus”. For the US establishment, the PRC is a tailor-made new-and-improved “foreign threat”, after Afghanistan and Iraq and, now, twinned with the Russian Federation.
Zbigniew Brzezinski had identified the Russian Federation and China in his The Grand Chessboard as the two Eurasian powers the US must subdue in order to cement its global domination as the sole superpower, after the demise of the USSR. Readers would recollect our discussion of Brzezinski’s strategy to use Kyiv as cat’s paw to bring Russia to its knees; the strategy is in operation now in Ukraine.
The second string to his bow sought to cap China’s economic growth, eliminate it as a challenger and reduce PRC effectively to a US vassal. Brzezinski did not spell out a plan in detail since the PRC was at best a distant irritant when he wrote Chessboard in 1997. The strategic environment rapidly transformed in the subsequent three decades as China burst on the world stage as a Big Power. Brzezinski’s ideological clones in academia and government scrambled to cobble together a strategy to neuter China.
The task is not easy since the PRC poses a peculiar challenge. China’s economic advance, rapidly eclipsing the US economy, is evident across the board and, crucially, in the arena of world trade. Australia’s Lowy Institute (using IMF’s Direction of Trade Statistics) found by 2018, “90 countries traded more than twice as much with China as with America.” Though China’s growth fluctuated in the subsequent three years, China has emerged as the world’s premier trading nation and long-term trends project the economic gap between the US and China would very likely continue to widen.
PRC’s economic success (and of India, too) demonstrates, first, that civilised nations can build themselves up on their own labour and resources without colonising and looting the wealth of other nations. Second, China cannot be convincingly dressed up as an “existential threat” to the US since China is winning in the same global free market revered and promoted by the West. Attempts to hobble China’s growth exposes the West’s deceit of deifying laissez-faire while simultaneously impairing other competing countries – in this case China – that triumph. Third, wild accusations by Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden about Beijing’s alleged “unfair” trading practices, of “raping” the US as Trump ludicrously alleged during the 2016 presidential election campaign, has apparently convinced only a minority among the US public. Further efforts became necessary to tip US and European Union public opinion in favour of a War on China.
As usual the mainstream western media professionals – editors and journalists –are straining every nerve to detract attention to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Tibet, where there are issues of human rights violations. We naturally deplore them. On balance however they are not remotely comparable to the devastation Anglo-Saxons visited upon peoples in their Empires over the past two or three centuries and still continue through regime changes (“Colour Revolutions”) and invasions (Iraq, Afghanistan).
The BBC propped up Anglo-Saxon victimhood. The “West invited China to eat its lunch”, moaned BBC journalist; when “[t]he world was preoccupied with the immediate aftermath of 9/11…China’s admission to the World Trade Organization…[went] largely unnoticed…few know it even happened, let alone the date.” This tearjerker best belongs in kindergarten storybooks!
The PRC’s armed forces are several times weaker and cannot be sold to the US public as a credible military threat. As the next option, Western strategists are demonising China as a immediate and present danger to its smaller neighbours – Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and so on – and casting the US as their saviour, hastening to their rescue. However that is a difficult sell to a public singed by successive debacles in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.
Washington expected the NATO-backed military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan would wean the US public from the Vietnam Syndrome, of rejecting US boots-on-the-ground in wars on foreign soil. The expectation was based on two false assumptions. First, the defeat in Vietnam had been explained away by the diplomatic, material and military support the Socialist Bloc provided to the Vietnamese Liberation Movement. Second, after the USSR collapsed and the Socialist Bloc disintegrated, Washington was confident Afghanistan and Iraq, bereft of external succour, were ripe for the picking. The defeat in the two Muslim countries shattered the first assumption and proved that in all three countries the implacable People’s Resistance mainly drove the NATO military juggernaut into the ground. The Vietnam Syndrome resurged with a vengeance as the Iraqi campaign reached a dead end; and it intensified when the Afghan Mujahidin ruthlessly decimated the US-led NATO forces. More effort was necessary to further ideologically condition the US public to see the wisdom of a War on China.
The Thucydides trap
The current generation of US Right-Wing ideologues stepped up to the Mound to pitch, to drum up the US public’s support for a War on China. The former Director Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs asserted in 2012, a year after Obama’s Pivot to Asia, that the “Thucydides’s [sic] trap has been sprung in the Pacific”, implying an America-China war is all but inevitable.
The Thucydides Trap “theory” is the most recent dodgy justification for war. An earlier example is the “Domino Theory” that rationalized American aggression against Vietnam and Kampuchea, supposedly to prevent other South-East Asian peoples falling like mindless dominos to advancing Communism. Of course, the Domino theory was exposed as crude war propaganda since no political dominos fell after the defeated US military (and its allies) fled Vietnam in 1975.
Another, is Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization “theory”. It dressed up US aggression in West Asia (“Middle East” for erstwhile colonial rulers and their ilk) as a conflict between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic Civilisations, with strong allusions to medieval Crusades. It was crafted to replace the Communist-phobia (after the USSR disintegrated) with Islamophobia. Edward Said dismissed Huntington’s claim as “The Clash of Ignorance”; Noam Chomsky stressed, “one of the tasks of [mainstream] intellectuals, the solemn task, is to prevent people from understanding what’s going on” and firmly disputed Huntington’s assertions.
Moreover, among the 57 member-countries in the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) a mere handful – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Somalia and Syria – have defied Anglo-American power. The client rulers in most others are enmeshed in varying dependent relationships with one or the other western power. In fact some key Islamic countries are virtually propped up and armed by the West, as amply demonstrated by even a cursory examination of US/British/French military aid to the West Asian Sheikhdoms. The US, for example, in 2021 made $126.6 billion worth of Foreign Military Sales to Saudi Arabia. Anglo-American ideologues rarely allow such inconvenient facts to sully the delusionary Clash of Civilisations.
The Harvard scholar dredged up the third, Thucydides Trap “theory” for war. He reached back to the more than two millennia-old idea the Athenian general and historian Thucydides apparently distilled out of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides had explained the principal cause that led the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, to battle the Delian League, headed by Athens, thus: “[t]he growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon [synonymous with Sparta], made the war inevitable.”
However, Thucydides did not envisage a trap. As Allison elaborated in 2019, he added the word “trap” to coin the term “Thucydides Trap…six or eight years ago” (in 2012 to be exact). According to Allison, where “Athens rises or Germany rises as a hundred years ago, or China rises today and tries to, as it rises, displaces or disrupts the incumbent…the outcome is violent conflict.” However, the idea of a mechanistic Thucydides “Trap” overriding human will is no older than a decade and tagging on the adjective Thucydides cannot impute antiquity to Allison’s “Trap”.
In contrast two fellow US scholars, Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins University and Michael Beckley at Tufts University projected a diametrically opposite scenario: that war could break out when the challenger’s power had peaked and is in decline, which they claim had compelled Nazi Germany to launch its military campaign. China’s growth, they allege without a shred of evidence, has peaked and the country is in a “peaking power trap…it’s China’s—not the United States’—impending decline that could cause [the trap] to snap shut.”
In short, Allison maintains rising China would trigger a war with the US; but Brands and Beckley contend declining China would resort to war against the US. The Chinese are damned if they rise and damned if they don’t!
Several scholars in the West and in China have questioned the growing competition and shifting balance of power – Thucydides Dynamic – made war “inevitable” between the two competing Leagues. Similarly there is no consensus today’s contest between the US and China is necessarily destined to war.
The comparison Allison made between the 5th Century Athens and Sparta on the one hand and 21st Century PRC and US on the other may reveal a few insights, as it sometimes does. However his ahistorical approach violates one of historiography’s ironclad rules: contextualisation. He transposed Thucydides’ idea from one historical setting of Greek City-States, more than two millennia ago, and mechanistically applied to another, vastly different and infinitely more complex world of Nation-States today. The latter are braided within global multilateral institutions (UN and its inter-governmental agencies) as well as regional associations (EU, SAARC, ASEAN, BRICS, CIS, etc), none of which existed in the 5th Century BCE. The tenuous alliances between ruling families and/or clans from different political units within Greece are a far cry from today’s inter-governmental architecture incorporating States.
Rather than accept Thucydides’ explanation at face value, it’s necessary to examine and account for a probable bias in his assessment stemming from his responsibility, as an Athenian general, to rationalise the need to war in accordance with the interests of his masters, the Athenian elite. Second, Athens and Sparta formed alliances (Leagues). Alliances are prone to shifting loyalties and conflicting interests within each that open space to choose from among multiple outcomes.
In a refreshing though transient course correction Allison conceded a Sino-US war is “not inevitable”; but he knee jerked to the metaphor of an impending car crash to allege the likelihood of war since the rising “unstoppable force” – PRC – is fast approaching “an immovable object” – the entrenched power of US.
Alison examined 16 instances from the 16th to early 20th Centuries of such power struggles but focused on 12 that ended in conflict. Among the other four, Britain handed the baton over to its own settler colony, the US without overt conflict; it is an exception. The absence of war in three is more relevant to the Sino-US confrontation. In the first, the 15th Century hostility between Portugal and Spain was dissipated by the Vatican’s intervention under its overarching religious institutional framework. Moving to the post-WWII 20th Century, the second is the Cold War between the US and USSR, which did not turn “hot” not only because MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) discouraged war but, more importantly, the UN’s multilateral global institutions served as lightening conductors to dissipate periodic crises and its International Law Regime restrained aggression. In the third case the European Union similarly provided the encompassing political architecture to resolve tensions between its member-countries Britain/France verses Germany.
In the last two cases most relevant in the post-WWII period, the inescapable lesson, which Allison appears to have left hanging in the air, is the crucial role played by global, multilateral UN institutional framework in maintaining peace between States that welcomed its good offices.
It is unsurprising that Allison found none of the nine ways he examined for the US and PRC to escape the Thucydides “Trap” credible because he sought a solution not under the UN framework but within what he named the “U.S.-led international order” – known among some scholars as US Imperialism – which he alleged “has provided unprecedented great-power peace and prosperity for the past 70 years”. The rendition of creative historiography ignores the roles of the UN and the EU in maintaining peace between potentially warring nations; it also begs the question whether US’ global policing bestowed “peace and prosperity” upon numerous countries: Vietnam, Kampuchea, Indonesia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Haiti, Somalia, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and so on and, in the 21st Century, upon the nations laid waste by the mindless and destructive War on Terror.
The Harvard scholar perhaps intuitively sensed that any attempt to resolve the US-PRC power struggle within the so-called U.S.-led International Order would of necessity lead to war. However, he didn’t turn to the available UN framework to resolve the US-PRC confrontation perhaps because he couldn’t resist the Neo-Conservative End-of-History-Illusion. A lesson he extracted instead is the role of an actor possibly external to the rivals who could trigger war. He cited the 1914 assassination of Austrian Crown Prince Archduke Frantz Ferdinand as an example of “extraneous actions unrelated to the rivalry, by some third party” that, he claims, sprang the “Trap” shut for Austria-Hungary and precipitated the First World War.
Much of historiography, as we know, is interpretation. Other evaluations concluded that the Austria-Hungary had been itching to make war on Serbia. Belgrade, flushed with victory in the 1913 Second Balkan War, coveted Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia that Vienna had seized from the declining Ottoman Empire. Belgrade’s expansionism threatened Vienna, which “feared that the appeal of Serbian nationalism would have a powerful effect on Serbs in Bosnia…under Austrian control”. Vienna grabbed the chance offered by the 28 June assassination – historical accident – to retaliate with the July Ultimatum, evidently an afterthought more than three weeks later. The wording of several clauses in the Ultimatum violated Serbia’s sovereignty and, as Sir Winston Churchill opined, made “absolutely impossible…any State in the world could accept it, or that any acceptance, however abject, would satisfy the aggressor”. Vienna’s belligerent Austro-Hungarian rulers so worded the Ultimatum that Belgrade would be compelled to reject it; if not the assassination, Vienna would very likely have engineered an incident, even a false flag attack, to justify war with Serbia. Vienna would arguably have found it extremely difficult to pursue war had there been at that time a global structure akin to the UN overseeing the exchange. In its absence Vienna manipulated Belgrade’s rejection to unilaterally choose “a limited war against Serbia”, a tragic act of self-delusion that inexorably led to WWI.
The lesson Alison sadly missed is, the Austria-Hungary precedent demonstrates war is always contingent never foregone since historical events – especially war – result from the conjuncture of multiple forces and personal ambitions; the consequences of their interplay are neither entirely predictable nor always inevitable.
President Xi Jinping underlined the point during his September 2015 visit to Seattle: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”
[Next: War Without End]
*Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is an independent researcher who received his Ph.D degree from the University of Cambridge. He was Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and taught World History at Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. He is an award-winning filmmaker and may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org