Escaping Thucydides’ Trap: Can America and China Break the Cycle?

Thucydides, the Greek historian and author of “History of the Peloponnesian War,” presented a perspective that continues to resonate in contemporary strategic thinking. He argued that the fundamental cause of the Peloponnesian War stemmed from Athens’ rapid ascension to power, which instilled fear in Sparta, the previous dominant force in Greece. Graham Allison, in his book “Destined for War,” drew upon this notion to illustrate the relationship between the United States and China, using it as an example of the “Thucydides trap.” This theory suggests that when a dominant power collapses and a rising power emerges, conflict and war between the two become increasingly likely.

The Difficulties and Controversies of the US-China Economic Partnership

While American consumers benefited from an influx of affordable Chinese products, the surge in imports led to the displacement of numerous American workers. China has faced longstanding accusations from the United States of pressuring American companies to transfer technology or engaging in outright theft. The initial optimism surrounding China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) two decades ago has waned as Beijing has embraced a state-driven approach to development, providing subsidies to specific industries that disadvantage American and other foreign firms. Additionally, Chinese investments have raised concerns regarding national security. The trajectory of the economic partnership between the two nations remains uncertain, particularly as President Joe Biden adopts a more assertive stance.

Unleashing the Tech Battle: The US-China Rivalry and Its Implications for Artificial Intelligence, Economic Competitiveness, and Global Fragmentation

The technological rivalry between China and the United States is entering a new phase, marked by a significant offensive launched by the American administration on Oct 7. These measures have effectively restricted China’s access to crucial components necessary for advancements in artificial intelligence (AI). American companies are now prohibited from exporting cutting-edge chips, software, and manufacturing equipment to China. The rapid and substantial technological progress achieved by China in recent years has raised concerns in Washington and other quarters regarding its impact on the overall economic competitiveness and national security of the United States. There are also apprehensions about the implications for liberal principles and good governance on a global scale. Additionally, the growing fragmentation of the global technology sector, particularly the divergence of standards and norms, is causing mounting concern as the Chinese technology market becomes increasingly detached from that of the United States and the broader Western world.

Beyond Geopolitics: Ideological Dimensions of the US-China Conflict and Missed Opportunities

Whether referred to as great-power competition or a new Cold War, the United States and China find themselves entangled in a protracted conflict. While some observers, particularly foreign-policy generalists, and realists, argue that the US-China confrontation is primarily driven by geopolitics rather than ideology, others assert that ideology remains a significant factor. They contend that China has embraced capitalism, refrains from exporting its ideology, and no longer poses an existential threat to liberal democracy and the Western way of life, unlike the Soviet Union in the past. According to this perspective, occasionally drawing upon Thucydides, the issue stems from China’s ascent as a global power, which inevitably clashes with the established superpower, the United States, irrespective of their differing political systems. However, ideology has consistently played a substantial role in fueling the conflict, and many challenges could have been mitigated if the West had actively engaged with a democratic China.

The South China Sea: Strategic Importance, Resource Potential, and Regional Tensions

The South China Sea holds significant strategic importance as a crucial shipping route. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, in 2016, over 21% of global trade, amounting to $3.37 trillion, traversed these waters. Additionally, the region boasts abundant fishing grounds, which support the livelihoods of millions of people in the area. More than half of the world’s fishing vessels operate in these waters. While the Paracels and Spratlys, though uninhabited, may potentially possess reserves of natural resources, detailed exploration of the area has been limited, and estimations rely largely on the mineral wealth of neighboring locations. China emphasizes its peaceful nature and asserts that it has not initiated any conflicts, occupied foreign territory, or engaged in proxy wars. This sentiment was expressed by the country’s defense minister, Li Shangfu, during the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security meeting held in Singapore.

Chinese State-Sponsored Hacking: Global Concerns and a Cybersecurity Alert from Western Intelligence Agencies

Western intelligence agencies, along with Microsoft, have issued warnings regarding a state-sponsored Chinese hacker group that has allegedly been conducting surveillance on various critical infrastructure organizations in the United States. Concerns have also been raised about similar activities taking place on a global scale. In a joint Cybersecurity Advisory (CSA) statement, authorities from the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom — the countries comprising the Five Eyes intelligence network — highlighted a series of suspicious activities associated with a Chinese cyber actor known as Volt Typhoon. The advisory aims to draw attention to this cluster of concerning cyber activities attributed to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and to raise awareness among cybersecurity authorities internationally.

Navigating the Escalation Ladder: China’s Views on Nuclear Weapon Use and Conflict De-escalation

From the perspective of China, the momentum and nature of a conflict would significantly shape the escalation ladder and options for de-escalation. In China’s view, the scenarios under which they would consider employing nuclear weapons revolve around the notion that such a step would only be taken if conventional methods fail to achieve their objectives. Managing escalatory dynamics becomes more challenging for Beijing if they perceive themselves to be reacting to unfavorable changes in the status quo. For instance, if Taiwan were to declare independence, Beijing would strive to compel Taiwan to withdraw its declaration. However, if successful US involvement undermines this objective, Chinese officials may contemplate the use of nuclear weapons to prevent the loss of Taiwan. The United States could create this perception by effectively neutralizing Chinese military capabilities to the extent that Beijing cannot sustain the fight, or by implementing a coercion campaign, such as severe economic sanctions, that leaves Chinese leadership with the belief that their only options are surrender or escalation.

Growing Racism and Human Rights Concerns in the United States and China

Racism is experiencing an alarming resurgence, and ethnic minorities continue to face pervasive prejudice. Hate crimes driven by racial bias have seen a significant increase in the United States between 2020 and 2022. The heinous racist attack at a Buffalo grocery store, resulting in the death of ten African-Americans, sparked global outrage. According to 81 percent of Asian Americans, violence targeting Asian communities is also on the rise. African Americans are 2.78 times more likely than white individuals to be killed by the police. The historical injustices inflicted upon indigenous populations, including genocide and cultural assimilation, persist to this day as a result of policies pursued by the United States government.

Conversely, the Chinese government’s human rights record and its assertive “wolf warrior” diplomacy have generated increasingly negative perceptions of the Chinese government in several nations worldwide. An analysis by Aid Data revealed the existence of $385 billion in “hidden debt” owed by developing countries to Chinese authorities. Some foreign countries have taken tangible steps to exert pressure on the Chinese government to improve its human rights practices domestically and internationally, but these efforts have proven insufficient to effectively address the magnitude and scope of Beijing’s violations.

The international community, in general, desires a future where they are not compelled to choose sides between Beijing and Washington. They aspire to a global order where countries of all sizes have confidence in their territorial integrity, political sovereignty, and development paths. Moreover, they prefer a world characterized by stability, supported by a functioning international system capable of addressing the significant global challenges of our time that no single nation can tackle alone. The outcome of the ongoing dynamics between China and the United States will determine whether such a future is still attainable. The international community, in particular, would welcome a future where they are not forced to choose between Beijing and Washington.

[Image by Priyam Patel / Pixabay]

Mahmodul Hasan Shesheir is a research assistant at the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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