Can China and the U.S. escape the Thucydides Trap?

Thucydides Trap

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump, Palm Beach, Florida, 6 April 2017 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

By Suining Sim

History never repeats itself, but it often echoes.

In an exclusive webinar with former Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger, students from the ISF Academy in Hong Kong and Chadwick International school in South Korea discussed tensions between the world’s most powerful nation, the United States, and a rising China — and heard echoes of past conflicts on the Korean peninsula.

The online session for students and faculty from academic institutions in News-Decoder’s program considered the relevance today of the “Thucydides Trap,”  a term coined by Graham Allison based on the observations of Thucydides, an Ancient Greek historian who noted that conflict is inevitable when a lesser power challenges a predominant power.

Examples throughout history abound: from the Franco-Prussian War to the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars.

And now?

Are China and the United States already allies?

China’s role in the world has surely changed in the last 20 years, evolving from a closed-off country to a leader in agriculture, STEM, industry and defense. The country has made great strides since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the late 1970s, with the Communist Party retaining control even as the economy evolves.

“In less than a month, the Communist Party of China will formally anoint Xi Jinping for his second term,” Schlesinger reminded students at the outset of the webinar.

Meanwhile, the  United States has been the world’s de facto superpower since the end of the Cold War and become accustomed to exerting global influence. “Think Vietnam War, Korean War, think bases in Japan and in Korea,” Schlesinger explained.

Founder and managing director of the media and China independent consultants Tripod Advisors, Schlesinger conceded that things have changed in recent years. “I think it’s a fact that the U.S.’s position in the world has declined. Part of that is natural, part of that is self-inflicted.”

Are China and the United States already allies? Historian Niall Ferguson and economist Moritz Schularick have coined the name “Chimerica,” describing the symbiotic relationship between the two powers. China produces and sells goods, driving its economy, and then invests much of that foreign exchange into U.S. debt, which helps to keep global interest rates low.

Can China exercise “soft power”?

In News-Decoder’s online forum leading up to the webinar, students had asked whether China could rely on “soft power” — the ability to persuade through the use of economic or cultural influence — rather than military might as it gathers strength.

The United States has plenty of soft power assets: consider Hollywood, headlining American pop stars and the prevalence of the English language.

Schlesinger, who consults independently for China’s state television provider, China Central Television (CCTV), considered the question from a unique angle.

“Some of China’s greatest soft power gains and successes can be seen in its state-run media channels. CCTV, for example, has fantastic coverage of events in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. It’s much better than Western agencies who just don’t have the people there,” he said.

Beijing, Pyongyang and Washington need to talk.

Despite China’s ventures into soft power, the question remains: Will China and the United States fall into the Thucydides Trap?

North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests were foremost on the minds of students at Chadwick International, which is near South Korea’s border with its northern neighbor.

“The U.S is currently trying to discourage China’s trade with Pyongyang,” Mouhamadou Nakoulima of Chadwick said. “Do you have any criticisms for the approach the U.S. took? If so, what would be a better way?”

Schlesinger replied: “I think the U.S. has been too public and bellicose over North Korea. There was a time when China had more influence, but at this point of time, North Korea isn’t listening to anybody.”

To dodge the Thucydides Trap and avert military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing and Washington need to talk.

“I think it’s important to get talking,” Schlesinger said. “China could be an important broker to get parties talking on neutral ground without any onerous preconditions.”

Historically North Korea’s ally, Beijing has recently agreed to ever tighter sanctions against Pyongyang, aligning itself with the United States and the other United Nations Security Council members.

The implications of a partnership between a developing China and a developed United States are enormous. As Eddie Lee of ISF Academy commented: “Wouldn’t they accomplish so much more together than apart?”

By cooperating over North Korea, China and the United States could cement their own relationship and perhaps even avoid the Thucydides Trap.


Suining Sim is a junior at the ISF Academy in Hong Kong and with this article is making her first foray into the world of journalism through the eyes of a Chinese-American. She enjoys tea on rainy days, Broadway and debating social justice issues.

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