Image by David Saveliev
Essay by Jenny W. Xiao
“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable,” Thucydides wrote of the Peloponnesian War. The term “Thucydides Trap” was popularized by the Harvard academic Graham Allison and captures the tensions between a rising and an established power. As China ascends rapidly and begins to challenge America’s position, political observers are increasingly worried about the two countries falling into a “Thucydides Trap” and that war might be back on the table.
Such concern, however, is overblown. A war between the two countries is extremely unlikely. Looking forward and reasoning backward, there are essentially two scenarios—either power transition occurs or it does not. Upon closer examination, neither scenario allows many possibilities for war. Not only is there a large chance that China will not become sufficiently strong to challenge the U.S., nuclear weapons also keep armed conflict in check. Hawks on both sides that advocate for war preparation are simply too alarmist and learned the wrong lesson from the Peloponnesian War.
Scenario 1: America Maintains Its Edge
Those who predict war between the U.S. and China almost never consider this scenario. What if China’s rise comes to a stop? In the 1980s and 1990s, there was much talk about Japan becoming the largest economy. Senator Paul Tsongas goes as far as to say that “the Cold War is over; Japan won.” In The Rise and fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy warns America of imperial overstretch and anticipates a Japanese superpower. However, such talk never materialized and soon died down after the Asian financial crisis broke out and the Lost Decade kicked in.
The same might happen to China. The country faces serious internal problems. Perhaps most worrisome is its aging population—due to its one-child policy, China is aging faster than any other country. Moreover, the Chinese economy is already slowing down, and the country’s economic reality might look much worse than the official data shows. Taking demographic trends into account, the American economy is in far better shape for long term competition. Michael Beckley’s new book Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower provides an excellent yet unconventional account of the future of American power. America tends to exaggerate the power of its “peer competitors”—after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Japanese economy slowed down, China became the next in line to compete with Uncle Sam. But the reality is that these countries are simply no match for the U.S. in the long term.
Even if China becomes the world’s largest economy, it is still unlikely that it will ever be able to challenge the U.S. militarily on a global scale. As of this point, China has one single overseas military base and is in the process of building its second aircraft carrier—its power projection capability is extremely limited. It is also much weaker than the U.S. on the nuclear level. In fact, China only has 280 nuclear warheads, fewer than France and a far cry from America’s 6550. Moreover, China has few strong allies, while the U.S. is friendly with a number of strong military powers. Given China’s increasingly assertive posture in East Asia, its neighbors will probably form a balancing coalition to check Chinese expansion. Even if China decides to spend more on its military than the U.S., it will still take decades before it can catch up, as military spending is not a one-time payment but has a cumulative effect. In other words, it is a mistake to assume that Chinese economic power will immediately translate into military superiority.
Scenario 2: China Overtakes America
In the unlikely case that China actually overtakes the U.S., the question one should ask is in what ways will China surpass the U.S.? The most probable scenario is that China will eventually be able to challenge the U.S. in the Asian Pacific. However, even in this case, the outbreak of war between the two countries is unlikely—neither side would be willing to fight. From Beijing’s perspective, although it is unhappy with America’s military involvement in the region—especially Washington’s two “island chains” that surround the Chinese mainland—it would probably prefer American presence to Japanese or South Korean nuclearization. At the end of the Cold War, Russia clearly would have preferred NATO remaining in Europe rather than Germany acquiring nuclear arms. Similarly, in the future, China will realize that America’s presence is the “lesser evil.”
From Washington’s point of view, though it is unwilling to tolerate a more assertive China, it will be increasingly advertent to risking war with China as Chinese military power grows. Because both sides have nuclear weapons, any armed conflict between the two powers risk escalating into a nuclear standoff. Leaders on both sides will handle crises extremely carefully and at least one side will compromise, as in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis.The destructiveness of nuclear weapons prevents political forces from driving the U.S. to war with China.
Proponents of the “Thucydides Trap” thesis usually point to the two World Wars—the tensions between a rising Germany and an established Britain dragged the whole world into deadly conflicts. However, a more relevant case for analyzing U.S.-China relations is the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, because this case happened after the nuclear revolution. However, compared to the Soviet Union, China is much less of a threat to the U.S. The Soviet Union spanned over the entire Eurasian landmass and was adjacent to the Persian Gulf, whereas China is an Asian power. The Soviet Union spent much more resources on military, but China spends a mere 1.9% of its GDP on defense, much lower than America’s 3.1%. China is also more prone to external influence than the Soviet Union, as the country is heavily reliant on exports—the ongoing trade war shows how vulnerable China is to American policy. More importantly, the Soviet Union had an expansionist crusader ideology, which China lacks. In a word, if nuclear weapons were able to keep the peace between the Americans and the Soviets, there is little reason to doubt it would have the same effect on U.S.-China relations.
The Real Lesson from the Peloponnesian War
Realists like to quote Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, but who actually won the Peloponnesian War? Sparta or Athens? In reality, both lost—although Sparta officially “won” the war against Athens, all Greek city-states were drained from prolonged war and were soon conquered by the Macedonians. Thucydides did not live to see the day that the Kingdom of Macedon subjugated both Athens and Sparta. But with the benefit of hindsight, we should understand that the Peloponnesian War wasn’t just about the “Thucydides Trap”—why “the rise of Athens” and the “fear of Sparta” made war inevitable. The Peloponnesian war was a story of how narrow-minded competition led to the downfall of two great powers. In the contemporary context, rather than merely rest assured that a U.S.-China war is unlikely, we should rethink the lesson we learned from the Peloponnesian War.
Jenny W. Xiao is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. She is a member of the UChicago Chapter of the John Quincy Adams Society. This essay earned an honorable mention in the 2019 John Quincy Adams Society Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.