Thucydides’s Trap: Is the war between America and China inevitable?

saddam hussain samo
Saddam Hussain Samo on Thucydides’s Trap: Is the war between America and China inevitable?

The recent rise of China that challenges the dominance of established power, the United States of America (USA), has brought the Thucydides’s trap into a limelight. Many scholars have produced essays by highlighting the Thucydides’s Trap. Some believe that America and China cannot escape it, while other are of the opinion that bloodshed will never take place between the two deadly powers.

In order to explain whether the war between America and China is inevitable or not, under the pretext of Thucydides’s Trap, one should have proper knowlegde about what is actually a Thucydides’s Trap?

The term, Thucydides’s Trap, is a new and was coined by American political scientist and professor Graham Allison recently, but the concept behind this phrase is very old and belongs to 5th-century BCE Greek historian, Thucydides, who wrote the most famous account of the Peloponnesian War that took place between the established power of Sparta and rising power of Athens. According to him, the entire Peloponnesian War was due to ”the growth in power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta.” Graham Allison named it as Thucydides’s Trap. In simple words, Thucydides’s Trap refers, as a rising power challenges the dominance of an established power, the war between them become inevitable. Today, the term is used in the context between the rising power of China that has challenged the dominance of the US. According to the Thucydides’s Trap, the war between America and China will definitely take place.

Is the war between America and China inevitable as per Thucydides’s Trap? The answer is big No. Below are given some major reasons that make it crystal clear for the readers that America and China will successfully escape the Thucydides’s Trap and avoid indulging into a deadly conflict.

Firstly, after the invention of nuclear weapons in 1945, indulging in the armed clashes is equivalent to a suicide attempt. This fact is well known to the American and Chinese leaders. They would not risk destroying their major cities by involving in the physical armed conflicts. They know that there would be no winner and looser afterwards. Before 1945, the wars between the rising and established power were a normal routine. Graham Allison, has mentioned the research of Harvard Thucydides’s Trap Project, which he directed, in his recently published book “Destined for War” the project reviewed 16 cases of the last 500 hundred years, where the rising powers challenged the dominance of the established ones. Twelve of these rivalries resulted into a war. What is interesting in this study is that the most of the wars took place before 1945 periods. Afterwards, till today, no war has taken place between the two nuclear powered countries, although some of them challenged the established power. The best example, here, could be cited of the Cold War rivalry between the US and Soviet Union.

Secondly, the new methods of conflicts, including cyber, hybrid and trade warfare have been devised in the present century to weaken the rival country without firing a single bullet or wasting the resources. The advancement in technology has given birth to these types of engagements that are more deadly than the conventional wars. The US was able to defeat the Soviets during the Cold War without firing a single bullet at the border. While explaining the conflicts between the rising and established powers, Thucydides referred to the traditional war that involved the physical clash. He, at that time i.e. 5th Century BC, might have not realized that states would employ non-armed clashes tactics in 21th century. Otherwise, the cyber, cold, hybrid and trade warfare between the rising power of China and established power of the US have already taken place. At various occasions, the US has claimed China to have launched cyber attacks against it. Besides, a trade war between them is in full swing and known to every one. Some authors have also termed the indirect conflict between China and the US as a new Cold War. Thus, the direct physical war is not inevitable between America and China because it has been replaced by the indirect conflicts in the present century owing to the growth in technology and those engagements have already taken place between the two powers.

Thirdly, today, leaders of China and America know the history very well. As George Santayana, a Spanish Philosopher said, “ those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” From the history, the leaders have learnt that the war would give neither side a decisive advantage.  Two classic examples from the history are in front of the US and China to avoid the war. First, three decades of bloodshed between Athens and Sparta brought the golden age of Greek culture to an end. Second, when the World War I & II ended, the golden period of British rule evaporated into a thin air leaving a space for the US to become a next super power. Hence, the war between the US and China will lay in ruin the both states and create an opportunity for other competitive countries to become a super power, which would not be acceptable to either of them.

Finally, mostly war breaks out due to miscalculation and misjudging. In the ancient periods, these miscalculations were difficult to redress and often led to the war. However, today, technology enables leaders to have direct contact during the crisis to avoid a war. For instances, if Chinese cargo ship is mistakenly fired by the American warship, the crisis could be ended by having direct contact with the leaders of the both countries at once owing to telecommunication technology to prevent further loss. Previously, it resulted in a war. The World War I was also based on this miscalculation. Both the British and Germany tried their best to avoid the war, but the killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by a Bosnian Serb nationalist during their official visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 triggered the World War I. Austria-Hungary became furious and declared war on Serbia on July 28 that finally led to World War I. Had the telecommunication technology was advanced, the war would have been avoided.

Thus, the armed conflict between the rising power of China that challenges the dominance of established power of the United States of America is not inevitable. However, the indirect conflicts like cold war have already taken place, but both countries will prevent to convert the cold war into bloodshed because they know, it will prove disastrous for both of them.


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