Can China and America avoid Thucydides's trap?

Author:Stevenson, Garth

Does history repeat itself? Toward the end of the 19th century the United States, having survived a terrible civil war, made the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy and emerged as a serious rival to the great powers of Europe. In the first half of the 20th century it grew to overshadow them all, economically and militarily, and become the richest, most powerful and most influential country in the world.

A century after the American Civil War ended, the People's Republic of China, still a very poor country in the 1960s and something of an outcast in international politics, endured a so-called "Cultural Revolution" that threatened to tear it apart. Immediately afterwards, in the 1970s, it achieved a rapprochement with its bitter enemy, the United States, was seated at the United Nations and began to move away from a centrally planned economy toward a form of capitalism. Like the United States a century earlier, it then entered a Gilded Age of unprecedented economic and industrial growth, continuing to the point where it will soon displace the United States as the world's largest economy, if it has not already done so.

As a result of these developments, few would dispute the proposition that a Sino-American bipolarity in international relations has replaced the Soviet-American bipolarity known as the Cold War that lasted for almost half a century, from 1945 to 1991. This in turn raises two important questions. In a bipolar world, is hostility between the two greatest powers inevitable? And if it is, will the hostility inevitably lead to a major war between them, which nowadays would exceed in death and destruction the so-called "world wars" of the first half of the 20th century?

The Soviet-American precedent might suggest that the answers are yes and no, respectively. The Cold War was certainly marked by plenty of hostility between the then two superpowers, but a major war was averted, although the world came close to one in 1962 and although some Soviet military personnel did fight, secretly, against the Americans in both Korea and Vietnam.

The Cold War was originally a contest about the future of Europe and especially of Germany, which had been left in dispute after the defeat of the Nazis, but its most dangerous moment came when the Soviets penetrated the American sphere of influence in the Caribbean. The Sino-American rivalry (Cold War II, so to speak) seems likely to find its most dangerous flashpoints in two messy pieces...

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