Why the US and China could go to war, according to Thucydides

Ignacio de la Torre. Professor. IE Business School

20 January 2017

As one of the greatest historians in Ancient Greece once said, the combination of a hegemonic power and a rising power leads to war, because the former feels threatened.

Recently the Chinese navy seized an American underwater drone which was in international waters, a few kilometers off Subic Bay, a US naval base in the Philippines. It was water that China sees as being the “South sea of China” that it owns for historical reasons, a claim that has been rejected by international law. President Trump tweeted “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters - rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act.”

Many an analyst is wondering if said incident was a warning from China in reaction to a possible hardening of US policy, as advocated by a lying Trump, who also said during his election campaign that he would declare China a currency manipulator (which doesn’t really have any practical consequences) and that he would introduce tariffs for certain Chinese products.  After his victory Trump, when answering a phone call from the President of Taiwan to congratulate him, broke with US foreign policy protocol  that has been in place since Nixon, namely the so-called “one China” doctrine,” which implied recognizing only the Beijing regime while defending Taiwan without dealing with it directly.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has strengthened his personal power to heights unseen since Mao, has broken with China’s traditional foreign policy established by Den Xiaoping, which avoided hostile gestures to other countries and focused on strengthening the economy.  Hence border incidents with neighboring countries like Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam have risen in number as China tried to exercise de facto possession of many islets, both artificial and natural, situated in what China considers to be its “historical waters - islets on which China has gradually been building military force. This is relevant when taking into account that some 5 trillion dollars’ worth of trade passes through the Pacific each year.  The strength of China’s air force has recently multiplied its missions in disputed territories and has run training exercises, complete with real bombardments, very close to Okinawa in Japan and the island of Taiwan.  Last Monday, for example, Wall Street Journal described how the Japanese air force had had to intercept Chinese war planes on 571 occasions last year, compared to 96 occasions in 2010.  The situation is particularly delicate if you take into consideration that China is not the only country run by a nationalist – so are Japan, Russia, the US and India – in other words all the big Pacific powers, and on occasions small skirmishes can set off a spiral that can turn into a war.

More than a year ago, Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School and famous expert in geopolitics, posited in The Atlantic the hypothesis of the “Thucydides trap”. Some 2,400 years ago, said great Greek historian wrote in his book “History of the Peloponnese Wars” that the combination of a hegemonic power and another rising power gives rise to war due to the fear that the rising power causes in the established one. Hence the hegemonic power among the Greek cities of the fifth century was Sparta, which saw itself as vulnerable as Athens gained enormous political, cultural and military power during that century.  This tension culminated in a minor incident, in this case a minor dispute between two cities, one an ally of Sparta and the other an ally of Athens. The minor dispute turned into the Peloponnese war, which pitched Athens and Sparta against each other, along with their respective allies, and finished up at the end of the fifth century with the defeat of Athens and the occupation of the Acropolis by the Spartans. In the words of Thucydides: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”  Paradoxically, Sparta maintained its hegemony for very little time, given that 20 years later it was defeated by Tebas, which was soon overrun by the Macedonia of Philip II and Alexander the Great.  

So, in the end, the war for hegemony was for nothing.

Graham Allison explains how to identify sixteen occasions over the last five hundred years when a rising power fueled fear in hegemonic power. Twelve of these occasions led to war, including when Habsburg challenged Valois France, when Napoleonic France challenged the British empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century, or when Japan’s Meiji defeated Tsarist Russia in 1905.

Of all these occasions, the most horrendous was the vast carnage that occurred during the First World War. Many analysts claimed that the risk of conflict was limited, given the high levels of international trade and the strong relations that existed between Germany and Britain.  As Kaiser Wilhelm II said during a visit to London in 1910: “War is impossible with a country I adore so much.”

The analysts were wrong, and the assassination of the heir to the throne of imperial Austria unleashed a diabolical unfolding of the fabric of alliances that had been woven since the times of Bismarck, leading to the tragic collective stupidity that left twenty million dead, and the end of the leading position Europe’s countries held in the world, including the United Kingdom and Germany.  

Yet another massive paradox resulting from the Thucydides trap.

The Chinese returned the drone, and an enormous percentage of Americans concur that they do not want the country to be embroiled in foreign adventures, so let’s hope that these “minor incidents” remain as such.  

Nevertheless, history has taught us that “isolated” incidents can lead to the greatest collective failure known to man, namely war.



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