Thucy­dides Trap not etched in stone

China Daily (Canada) - - NEWS IN REVIEW - Zhang Feng is a re­searcher in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity. MaoWeizhun is doc­toral can­di­date in pol­i­tics at Univer­sity of Kon­stanz in Ger­many. Zheng Yong­nian is a re­searcher in pol­i­tics at Sin­ga­pore Na­tional Univer­sity.

Editor's Note: Graham T. Al­li­son, po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist and pro­fes­sor at the Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment atHar­vard, has writ­ten two ar­ti­cles— in Fi­nan­cial Times in Au­gust 2012 and The New York Times in July 2013— cau­tion­ing China and the United States not to fall into the Thucy­dides Trap, where a ris­ing power causes fear in an es­tab­lished power which leads to a war. As ten­sions be­tween China and the US es­ca­late on trade and re­gional is­sues, the term Thucy­dides Trap is be­ing widely used. Fol­low­ing are the views of three in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions scholars through on the sub­ject.

Chi­nese id­iom can pro­mote ties

If China as a ris­ing power is seen as the fun­da­men­tal cause of a po­ten­tial war with an es­tab­lished power, that is, the US, it will be blamed for the wors­en­ing bi­lat­eral ties. While the US can al­ways say its China pol­icy is based on nor­mal se­cu­rity con­cerns, China will have to shoul­der the en­tire re­spon­si­bil­ity of im­prov­ing bi­lat­eral re­la­tions. The Thucy­dides Trap has be­come a catch­word for many com­men­ta­tors be­cause they want to put China in a dis­ad­van­ta­geous po­si­tion and al­low the US to oc­cupy the his­tor­i­cal and moral high ground.

The term is a dan­ger­ous diplo­matic trap for emerg­ing pow­ers. More im­por­tantly, the Thucy­dides Trap is in di­rect con­flict with the “new­type of ma­jor-power re­la­tion­ship” that China and the US agreed in 2012 to avoid re­peat­ing the mis­takes of the past world pow­ers.

Although China and the US are not likely to go to war against each other in the near fu­ture, by harp­ing on the Thucy­dides Trap, some com­men­ta­tors are try­ing to hi­jack the Sino-US ties. As such, Chi­nese scholars should avoid us­ing the term in the con­text of Sino-US ties. In­stead, they should find a con­cept or the­ory from China’s long history to de­scribe fu­ture Si­noUS re­la­tions while lay­ing em­pha­sis on the new­type of ma­jor-power re­la­tion­ship.

Per­haps they could use “Xun­cius Break­through” in the con­text of Sino-US ties.

Bri­tish philoso­pher ThomasHobbes’ the­ory— un­der the nat­u­ral state, ev­ery

per­son is the other per­son’s en­emy, and war is a nor­mal state— has in­flu­enced Western po­lit­i­cal thought for cen­turies. But Chi­nese philoso­pher Xun­cius (313-238 BC) said a set of well-planned man­ners or ac­tions, as op­posed to self­ish de­signs, can help avoid con­flicts and fa­cil­i­tate co­op­er­a­tion. Hence, Xun­cius’s the­ory can lead China and the US to­ward sus­tain­able co­op­er­a­tion.

It takes two sides to keep peace

Although Thucy­dides’ The History of the Pelo­pon­nesianWar re­counts the war be­tween Athens and Sparta in 5th cen­tury BC, theWest has made it a part of mod­ern in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. “What made war in­evitable was the growth of Athe­nian power and the fear it caused in Sparta,” wrote the Greek his­to­rian and philoso­pher. But more and more mod­ern­day stud­ies show emerg­ing pow­ers may not nec­es­sar­ily want to change the sta­tus quo.

The flip side of the Thucy­dides Trap, which many peo­ple have ig­nored, is that in many cases the de­clin­ing power has started a con­flict. Hence, Western scholars should shift their fo­cus to de­clin­ing pow­ers.

Also, coun­tries are caught in the Thucy­dides Trap be­cause of two-way ac­tions, which means the emerg­ing power and the es­tab­lished power both are re­spon­si­ble

for any even­tu­al­ity.

The in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions agenda is set byWestern­ers, who can­not aban­don their “pride and prej­u­dice” or get used to China’s rise. And they ig­nore the fact that an es­tab­lished power will take pre­emp­tive ac­tion to main­tain its su­pe­ri­or­ity. That is ex­actly what the US is do­ing now. This means the US is more re­spon­si­ble for the sour­ing of Sino-US re­la­tions.

China wants to build a new­type of ma­jor-power re­la­tion­ship with the US, be­cause it is com­mit­ted to peace and ea­ger to take part in global gov­er­nance. But one side’s com­mit­ment can­not pre­vent a con­flict, rather it could en­cour­age the other side to make more provoca­tive moves.

Use rea­son, not ide­al­ism, to judge US

The “pivot to Asia” pol­icy of the US was born out of the fear of China’s rise and, for the same rea­son, some Asian coun­tries have cho­sen to side with the US. Which means the Thucy­dides Trap is al­ready a re­al­ity in Asia. There­fore, how China will re­act, to a large ex­tent, will de­cide whether the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion will re­main peace­ful or wit­ness a war.

If China and the US de­cide to go in for a di­rect strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion with each other in the Asia-Pa­cific, it could lead to a con­flict.

Many of China’s diplo­matic and pol­icy

dis­courses vis-a-vis the US are de­signed to pre­vent fall­ing into the Thucy­dides Trap. The Chi­nese lead­er­ship has re­peat­edly em­pha­sized that it does not be­lieve in such a trap. But, to avoid a war, China can­not only rely on dis­courses.

China must find the right way to avoid the trap. It needs to dis­card its ide­al­ist stance on the US, and have a bet­ter knowl­edge of other coun­tries. The more re­al­is­ti­cally China sees the US and its al­liances with other coun­tries, the more likely it will avoid a war. And China can take so­lace be­cause, con­trary to the Thucy­dides Trap, there have been ex­am­ples of peace­ful tran­si­tions, from es­tab­lished to ris­ing pow­ers.

Yet China’s as­so­ci­a­tion with and in­flu­ence on the other Asian coun­tries have been weaker than the US’. China re­newed its re­la­tions with Asia with the start of the re­form and open­ing-up in the late 1970s. And only af­ter the US di­verted its at­ten­tion from Asia to the anti-ter­ror­ism war in theMid­dle East that China be­gan in­creas­ing its trade and in­ter­ac­tions with the rest of Asia. Still, China’s ris­ing in­flu­ence in Asia has made the US wor­ried that it could be driven out of the re­gion.

The fact, how­ever, is that China-US ties still have a lot of room for co­op­er­a­tion when it comes to Asia. As long as China does not in­tend to chal­lenge the US, it has no cause for worry. But for this, what China needs most is rea­son, not ide­al­ism.

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