Forget the Thucydides Trap – a ‘rising’ China has no desire to go to war with the US, and Washington needs to dispel its paranoia

  • Zhengxu Wang says China only wants its territorial rights and to ensure higher living standards for its people – and the idea that the US ‘rules’ the world is a myth that needs to be debunked
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 10:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 2:21pm

As China commemorates the 40th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations with the United States, the arrest of Meng Wanzhou – the CFO of one of China’s top technology companies, Huawei, by Canadian authorities on behalf of the US – appears to vindicate the Thucydides Trap thesis that the US and China may be locked into a path to war.

Professor Graham Allison, the Harvard academic who helped publicise the thesis, recently gave a series of talks in major universities in China. Given the tense bilateral relations between China and the US, it is comforting to see that academic visits between the two countries are still going on.

Everywhere he went, he was given a very cordial reception by students. During the Q&A sessions, they were eager to ask questions. And they asked very good ones – there was no anger, no attacking US behaviour or policies but, instead, genuine questions that built up a dialogue between a US academic and young Chinese.

Allison commented that young students in the US and China alike are global citizens, and that they like each other. On US campuses, he had witnessed them working together very well, he related. With such people-to-people amity, it would be hard to imagine the two nations bound for war.

But the worries about the relationship between the two giants are real. In fact, another renowned Harvard academic, Ezra Vogel, who also visited China recently, expressed deep concern. However, while listening to Allison, one quickly realises that all this talk about the so-called Thucydides Trap is simply the outcome of fear that shouldn’t have been created in the first place.

For example, regarding whether China is rising or has risen, Allison’s answer is “yes” to both. But how did we get this answer? Allison showed the reduction of the poverty rate from 90 per cent in 1978 in China to 1 per cent in 2014; the speed at which a highway bridge in Beijing was fixed (comparing it to a much smaller bridge-fixing project in Boston that was left unfinished for several years); the size of Chinese trade and manufacturing, etc.

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If improving living standards, creating or producing more goods for human consumption and enjoying better technology are indicators of a “rise”, then, yes, China is rising or has risen. But why should the US fear such a “rise”?

Allison also cited Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s late founding father, to prove his point. When asked whether he believed China would one day want to become No 1 in Asia, Lee’s answer was simple: why not? How could they not aspire to be No 1 in Asia, and in time the world?

If the Chinese people simply aspire to the high living standards enjoyed as the No 1 country in Asia or in the world, rather than going around dominating and bullying other countries, why should such a status be feared?

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What about “militant” and “aggressive” behaviour in China’s neighbourhood, such as the South China Sea? From Beijing’s point of view, China’s sovereignty over South China Sea islands was infringed by surrounding countries in the 1970s, and Beijing is now simply defending and asserting its sovereignty in the region – with the capacity it didn’t have before. This is not a picture of China going around bullying its neighbours.

Key to Allison’s, and some other Americans’ conception is that a rising China will seek to displace the “ruling” power: the US. That would indeed be a recipe for a deadly Thucydides Trap. But, first, one has to ask why the US feels it is the “ruling” power. After the second world war, the US “controlled” the Western camp, and the Soviet Union, the communist bloc. There was a third world, where the two superpowers had to compete for influence.

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The US did not rule the world then. Does it today? If it does, why are there are so many problems in the Middle East, Europe and with Russia and North Korea that the US cannot solve? The US belief that it “rules” the world, or that it “owns” the world, should be dispelled.

Second, even if we assume the US owns the world and is the ruling power, how do we know that China is aiming to displace it?

In the same conversation mentioned above, when asked by Allison about the possibility of a war between China and the US, Lee Kuan Yew’s answer was a categorical “no”. He did not see China as having any interest in contesting US primacy and changing the world.

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“The China that is rising is coming to get us” – such a mentality would probably lead to fulfillment of the Thucydides Trap thesis. That is the kind of thinking that has turned the US into a highly insecure and paranoid actor today.

And the US “ruling” the world is an imagined fact as well. Having got this straight, the US should be able to dispel its fear of being displaced, and work with China and everyone else to build a common future for the world.

Zhengxu Wang is professor of politics and international studies at Fudan University