US academic hails speed of China’s development, urges Beijing and Washington to avoid conflict
When asked about the changes in China that have impressed him most in the past four decades of reform and opening-up, Harvard University professor Graham Allison thought for a moment and then pointed outside his office window.
“When I gave a presentation on my Thucydides Trap book to my students, I showed the bridge that’s right under my office window here — the Anderson Bridge at Harvard — and I compared it with the Sanyuan Bridge in Beijing,” said Allison, author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
Allison said discussion of the renovation of the Anderson Bridge began when he was dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“And I quit being the dean in 1989,” he said. “The project began in earnest in 2012. It was a two-year project; and in 2014, they said it was not finished, it would take another year. In 2015, they said, ‘Not yet, there will be one more year’. 2016 they said, ‘We’re not telling you when it will be finished.’
“But in Beijing, the Sanyuan Bridge, which has twice as many traffic lanes as the bridge at Harvard, … in 2015, the Chinese decided they wanted to renovate that bridge. How long did it take for the Chinese to renovate this bridge — the project that took Americans more than four years? Only 43 hours.
“This is a pretty dramatic illustration of how China has very modern construction techniques, so that could be a very good lesson for Americans to learn,” Allison said.
But the contrast in the bridge renovations is just one example of the accomplishments China has made over the past 40 years, he said.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening-up, a policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping at the Third Plenum of the 11th Communist Party of China Central Committee in December 1978.
These economic changes were so farreaching that Deng described them as part of China’s “second revolution”.
Since then, the country has become an economic giant with the world’s largest foreign reserves ($3.2 trillion) and second-largest GDP ($12 trillion), while foreign direct investment in China reached $135 billion last year.
According to Bloomberg, China’s share of the global economy had grown from 1.8 percent in 1978 to 15 percent by 2017.
“I first went to China in the 1980s,” Allison said. “At that time, Shanghai was hardly Shanghai today. Everybody wore the same clothes, everybody seemed to struggle with life; there were not many cars, not much major building … a poor country and not that modern.”
Allison said he was invited by one of his students — the first Chinese to study for a master’s at the Harvard Kennedy School. Today, more than 1,000 Chinese students are enrolled at Harvard.
“But China now, in Shanghai or Beijing or any of other hundreds of cities, is a modern wonder,” Alison said. “Infrastructure, airports, subways, skyscrapers, cars, all look very modern. They are modern cities indeed.
“If you look at the opening up of peoples’ minds, the improvement is also very significant. In 1978, most Chinese people never traveled abroad, but today about 10 to 15 percent of Chinese have traveled abroad. However, the biggest accomplishment of the reform and opening-up policy is what I call inverting the pyramid of poverty — in 1978, 90 percent of Chinese were living below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of $2 per day.”
As a result of reform and opening-up over the past 40 years, the pyramid has been turned on its head, “and now only 1 percent live below the extreme poverty level”, Allison said. “The fact that in this single lifetime, some people have seen a 50-fold rise in their standard of living is amazing,” he added.
According to Chinese government statistics, 250 million people in rural areas lived below the national poverty line in 1978. By the end of last year, the figure had fallen to 30 million.
In 2000, the United Nations announced eight millennium development goals, and at the top of that list was to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty before 2015. Just four years later, in 2004, Robert Zoellick, then president of the World Bank, declared that “China’s efforts alone” had put the world on track to achieve this goal.
“Between 1981 and 2004, China succeeded in lifting more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty,” Zoellick said. “This is certainly the greatest leap to overcome poverty in history.”
In 2010, five years ahead of deadline, Zoellick declared mission accomplished, thanks primarily to China’s success.
China’s railway development has also impressed Allison. He said the only highspeed rail project in the US has been under construction for more than 10 years — the 804-kilometer link between Los Angeles and San Francisco — and is slated for completion in 2029.
In China, over the same amount of time, maybe about 25,000 km of high-speed rail could be built, he said.
In his book Destined for War, Allison paraphrases former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel as saying the rise of China has happened so quickly that we have not yet had time to be astonished.
“For many Americans, being No 1 is a core part of our identity,” said the Harvard professor, who explained that having to cope with a nation on par with the US — and in some areas has even surpassed it — is a difficult proposition for people to wrap their heads around.
“For a ruling power that has become accustomed to its position and prerogatives at the top of every pecking order, the very fact that a rising power threatens to match or even overtake it is understandably uncomfortable,” he said.
“So it was for Sparta, which had been the dominant power in Greece for 100 years, and for Britain at the beginning of the 20th century after 100 years in which it had ‘ruled the waves’ and maintained an ‘ empire on which the sun never set’. So it is for the USA after an ‘American century’.
“In this dynamic, beyond the facts, perceptions tend to become exaggerated misperceptions, calculations often become miscalculations.”
Americans who are certain that China is determined to displace the US as the global superpower interpret every action China takes as confirmation of this conviction, even when the country seeks to be conciliatory, Allison said.
Similarly, he added, Chinese who are certain that the US is determined to contain China’s rise interpret every American action through that lens, even when the US is trying to be helpful.
He warned that a tariff war between the world’s two largest economies could do serious damage to both sides. But economic damage from a trade war is not the most significant risk.
“When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, this creates a dangerous dynamic in which both the rising and ruling powers are vulnerable to third-party provocations that would, in normal conditions, be inconsequential or easily managed but that can trigger a spiral to a result neither of the primary competitors wanted,” Allison said.
“If Thucydides were watching, he would say both nations are on script heading toward a catastrophic collision.”
The Thucydides Trap — a phrase coined by Allison to describe the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a dominant power — has been often used regarding Sino-US relations in recent years.
To avoid the trap, the two nations should first recognize how dangerous the outcome might be and then find a new form of greatpower relations to avoid it, Allison said.
He noted that in the past 500 years, there have been 16 cases in which a rising power threatened to topple a ruling power from its predominant position. Twelve of those cases led to war.
“In this process of tit-for-tat, (a trade conflict) could escalate into more and more dangerous territory,” he said, adding that in the lens of this dynamic, misperceptions are magnified, miscalculations multiplied, and risks of escalation amplified.
“If we study history, the case of Japan, which was rising in the 1930s, rivaling the US, which was the predominant power in the western Pacific and maintained an opendoor policy.
“As Japan grew stronger, the US said ‘No, you have to stop this expansion.’ So initially, the US imposed economic tariffs, and then an embargo on exports of high-grade scrap iron and aviation fuel to Japan. And finally, in 1940, an embargo on oil, which the Japanese believed would strangle them slowly. Under those conditions, they concluded that it was better to attack America.”
Speaking of the current China-US trade dispute, Allison said, “Even worse than the economic impact would be if it should become part of the fuel that produces fire.”
Over the past four decades, the US has viewed China as a strategic partner, he said. But the Trump administration now publicly calls China a “strategic rival” or “adversary”, which shows a fundamental shift in the way Washington thinks about China and how the US should relate to it.
“That (shift) in this Thucydides dynamic makes it even more dangerous,” he said. “In this dynamic, we should ask the question President Xi (Jinping) asked, which is how to escape the Thucydides Trap. That’s the right question to ask.”
During the Chinese president’s state visit to the US in 2015, Xi and former US president Barack Obama discussed the Thucydides Trap at the White House. Xi said China and the US should prevent relations from falling into the trap.
In a speech delivered to local governments and friendly groups in Seattle during the same trip, Xi said: “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”
Allison said that the first step to escaping the Thucydides Trap is to recognize the trap and how dangerous it is. The second step is finding a way to escape it.
“President Xi’s idea is we should have a new form of great-power relations. I think this is a great idea. Now we have to construct all the elements of the new form,” the professor said, indicating that the process would require the two nations to cooperate.
“So far, the response by both governments and thought leaders in both societies has been underwhelming. There is no monopoly of wisdom on these topics in Washington or Beijing, or in university towns like Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he said.
“So this is an opportunity for all thinking people to stretch their minds.”