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The prospect of war awaits the US and China– will they avoid it?

[Graham Allison, Destined for War. Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boston, 2017. 364 pages]

 

REVIEW / Emili J. Blasco [Spanish version]

This is what has been called the Thucydides Trap: the dilemma facing a hegemonic power and a rising one that threatens that hegemony. Is war inevitable? When Thucydides recounted the Peloponnesian War, he wrote about the inevitability for the dominant Sparta and the emerging Athens to think of armed confrontation as a means of settling the conflict.

The fact that these two Greek polis necessarily thought about war –and finally they waged it–, does not mean that they did not have other options. History has shown that there are other alternatives: when Wilhemine Germany threatened to overcome Britain's naval force, the attempt of sorpasso (accompanied by several circumstances) led to the First World War, but when Portugal was overtaken by Spain in overseas possessions in the sixteenth century, or when the United States replaced Britain as the world's leading power in the late nineteenth century the power transfer was peaceful.

Destined for War. Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?, by Graham Allison, is a call to Washington and Beijing to do everything possible to avoid falling into the trap described by the Greek historian. In this book the founding dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government reviews several historical precedents. Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, of which Allison is director, has researched on them in a program called precisely Thucydides's Trap.

This concept is defined by Allison as "the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one. In such condition, not just extraordinary, unexpected events, but even ordinary flashpoints of foreign affairs, can trigger large-scale conflict.”

The structural stress is produced by the clash of two deep sensibilities: the rising power syndrome ("a rising state's enhanced sense of itself, its interests, and its entitlement to recognition and respect"), and its mirror image, the ruling power syndrome ("the established power exhibiting an enlarged sense of fear and insecurity as it faces intimations of decline").

Along with those syndroms the two rival powers also experience a 'secutity dilemma': “A rising power may discount a ruling state's fear and insecurity because it 'knows' itself to be well-meaning. Meanwhile, its opponent misunderstands even positive initiatives as overly demanding, or even threatening.”

The use of military force

Allison starts from the fact that China is already putting itself on par with the United States as a world power. It has done so in terms of the volume of its economy (China has already overtaken the U.S. in Purchasing Power Parity) and with regard to some aspects of military force (a report by Rand Corporation predicted that in 2017 China would have an “advantage” or “approximate parity” in 6 of the 9 areas of conventional capability). The author's assumption is that China will soon be able to wrest from the United States the scepter of main superpower. In this situation, how will both countries react?

In the case of China, its thousand-year perspective will probably lead to a attitude of patience, provided there is at least some small progress in its purpose of increasing its global weight. Since 1949 China has only resorted to force in three of 33 territorial disputes. In those cases, the Chinese leaders waged the war –they were limited wars, conceived as a warning to their opponents– even though the enemy was equal or greater, urged by a situation of domestic unrest.

For Allison, “As long as developments in the South China Sea are generally moving in China's favor, it appears unlikely to use military force. But if trends in the correlation of forces should shift against it, particularly at a moment of domestic political instability, China would initiate a limited military conflict, even against a larger, more powerful state like the US.”

For its part, the United States can choose several strategies, according to Allison: accommodate to the new reality, undermine Chinese power (commercial war, fostering separatism of the provinces), negotiate a long peace, and redefine the relationship. The author does not give firm advice, but seems to suggest that Washington should move between the last two options.

He recalls how Britain understood that it could not compete with the United States in the Western Hemisphere, and how from there a collaboration between the two countries grew, as manifested in the First and Second World War. This should happen by accepting that the South China Sea is an area of ​​Chinese influence. The United States should admit this, not out of mere condescension, but because it proceeds to a real clarification of its vital interests.

Despite its positive tone, Destined for War is one of the essays by the American establishment where the end of the American era and the passing the baton to China are most openly announced (it does not seem to glimpse a multipolar or bipolar world, but rather a primacy of the Asian country). It is also one of those assays that puts less accent –clearly less than it should– on the remaining strengths of the U.S. and the problems that can undermine the coronation of China.