What 'Thucydides Trap'? Why China & the U.S. Won't Go to War

Malcolm Riddell:         We are seeing now an interest in, as I mentioned earlier, the Thucydides trap and the broader ideas of where the world is going that seem to be fairly strategic. What about China? Where does China fit into all this?

Bill Overholt:               First of all, I'd say that the whole school of people that includes the Thucydides trap, and John Mearsheimer and a dozen of other political scientists, the focus is on the period before World War Two misses the whole strategic divide between the era when traditional military and territorial approaches were the way to build a powerful and successful country, and the modern world where those approaches are more likely to be self-defeating. One of the problems of narrow academic views, you miss these things like one of the greatest transformations in world history.

Where does China fit into this? China has strategic thinkers. They think long-term. They think in larger terms not defined by bureaucratic or academic specialties. Deng Xiaoping had a 50-year plan for Hong Kong and Taiwan. They have a 50-year environmental plan. They build their infrastructure based on projections that go out decades. Sometimes, that leads to see-through buildings and ghost cities, but more importantly it makes the difference between Shanghai and Mumbai. It takes a dangerous, volatile, potential geopolitical conflict over Hong Kong and turns it into a huge economic advantage for China and the world. The Chinese government is full of strategic thinking.

The one belt, one road program, which is now called the belt and road, is precisely a successor to the Eisenhower economic vision of how we'd stabilize the world and tie it to the States. That's a grand vision there. It's the only really impressive strategic vision in the world today.

China's problem is whether they can implement it. There, there's a very serious issue. China has so many economic commitments that it's making. There's a kind of hubris here that comes off of three decades of 10% economic growth. Now the economy is slowing and China's finances are squeezed. They also have some problems a little bit like ours, tactics getting in the way of the larger strategy. As they try to create a system with their neighbors as common standards and railroads with the same gauge tracks and open the economy, some of their local geopolitical types are creating trouble with neighbors by pursuing maritime territorial claims. Therein lies a lot of difficulty for China in implementing its grand vision.

Malcolm Riddell:        Are we looking here really at two separate things? One is the economic and even soft power that may come out of something like the one belt, one road, and then we come out of something that Mearsheimer might say, that China wants to be a regional hegemon. Are these two goals really in contradiction with each other?

Bill Overholt:              I think that the grand vision is the belt and road. I think that the fussing over what are ultimately trivial maritime issues and gratuitous conflict with India come out of local politics. Hu Jintao had to prove he was tough against accusations that he didn't understand military and national security thinking. Xi Jinping needs the support of the military for an economic reform that steps on too many toes.

Malcolm Riddell:         Are the U.S. and China destined for war?

Bill Overholt:               I don't believe that they are destined for war for several reasons. One, when you compare the dozen or so cases that political scientists look at, there are countries who are close to each other. Germany and France, Germany and the UK, China and the U.S. do not have territorial conflicts.

Secondly, the game is going to be decided more by economics. I'm not talking about economic interdependence. I'm talking about the fact that economics is the key to success if you're a realist in the modern world, and this is something that political science realists have never focused on. What you do is you pour your money into economic success, not territorial conquests or overwhelming military priority.

The countries of the world are not going to line up the way they did before World War Two. They don't see these issues as of good and evil. They see China as having done great things for its people, and the U.S. as having done great things for its people. They see some good things and some bad things about each one. They see the U.S. as much more attractive as a model than maybe China, but it's going to be a non-ideological world. The United States can pursue ideological policies with democracy promotion, but the rest of the world is going to be more pragmatic.

Finally, never have two countries gotten so much economic advantage from dealing with each other than the U.S. and China have. There's going to be constant pressure on both sides for leaders to realize that and not to mess it up.      

I think there are risks. I think the risks are increasing. I think the overall balance of considerations leans toward a messy world of clashes and possibly lower growth and pragmatic balancing of considerations.

William overholt

Bill Overholt

Senior Fellow at Harvard Asia Center 21 years' experience running Asia research teams for Nomura, Bank Boston, and Bankers TrustFormer Asia Policy Distinguished Research Chair and Director of the ...
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