Step Past the Trap

The pol­i­tics of two great pow­ers are not des­tined for tragedy, un­less they de­cide it so.

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Hu Zhoumeng

U. S. Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence’s Chin­abash­ing speech in early Oc­to­ber pre­sented quite a show. In his talk at the Hud­son In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., he at­tacked China’s do­mes­tic and for­eign poli­cies con­cern­ing trade, the South China Sea, Tai­wan, hu­man rights, re­li­gion and other is­sues. The de­ci­sion to es­ca­late the trade dis­putes and med­dle in China’s do­mes­tic af­fairs ex­pect­edly trig­gered a strong re­buke from Bei­jing. Most shock­ingly, Pence ac­cused China of an “un­prece­dented ef­fort” to in­ter­fere in the U. S. elec­tions. Play­ing the China card dur­ing U. S. elec­tion sea­sons is noth­ing new, but such dra­matic ac­cu­sa­tions with­out ev­i­dence is a new low.

Fram­ing China as a stiff ri­val is easy, but does noth­ing to help the U. S. ad­dress its in­ter­nal prob­lems and es­ca­late fric­tion be­tween the two great pow­ers. The in­cli­na­tion to de­sign the coun­try’s China strat­egy as con­fronting a “com­peti­tor” is ac­tu­ally snar­ing the U. S. into the so- called “Thucy­dides Trap.”

The Thucy­dides Trap the­ory claims that a ris­ing power causes fear in an es­tab­lished power which es­ca­lates to­ward war. Har­vard po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Gra­ham Al­li­son coined the term based on a quote from an­cient Greek his­to­rian Thucy­dides in ref­er­ence to the cur­rent China-U. S. re­la­tions.

The Thucy­dides Trap seems to in­creas­ingly res­onate with some Amer­i­can rad­i­cal strategists along­side the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Since Trump be­gan wag­ing a trade war against China, rounds of tar­iffs have been tit-for-tat at the ex­pense of con­sumers in both coun­tries.

“We will not be in­tim­i­dated, and we will not stand down.” As Pence’s ag­gres­sive speech promised, the U. S. is tak­ing a far tougher line on China while ex­pand­ing its fight from trade to other ar­eas.

The moves are ex­pos­ing the hid­den bait of the Thucy­dides Trap— it is a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy driven by sus­pi­cion. If two great pow­ers lack com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ac­tion begets mis­per­cep­tion and mis­per­cep­tion begets re­ac­tion, and then the con­fronta­tional mind­set gets ex­ac­er­bated as the loop re­peats. That is the ul­ti­mate snare of the sit­u­a­tion.

“If ri­vals see their cour­ses as pre­or­dained and Thucy­dides’ sup­posed trap as in­escapable, both will gird for what they re­gard as in­evitable,” ar­gued James Holmes, pro­fes­sor of strat­egy at the Naval War Col­lege, in an ar­ti­cle for The

Na­tional In­ter­est. “If they be­lieve they en­joy some say-so over the work­ings of des­tiny, then they might find some way to nav­i­gate their dif­fer­ences.”

Over the past four decades, the in­ter­ests of China and the U. S. have be­come highly in­ter­wo­ven. As Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi said, the most im­por­tant ex­pe­ri­ence gained by the two sides is that only through co­op­er­a­tion can a win-win sit­u­a­tion be at­tained, and con­fronta­tion will in­evitably lead to a lose-lose sce­nario.

China al­ways ad­vo­cates that any prob­lem be­tween China and the U. S. can be re­solved through equal and frank di­a­logue. That is how those two coun­tries have grown to­gether in the global eco­nomic sys­tem de­spite dif­fer­ences in po­lit­i­cal sys­tems and cul­ture.

The pol­i­tics of two great pow­ers are not des­tined for tragedy, un­less they de­cide it so. Fac­ing a trap, one can avoid it or fall for it, but there is no ex­cuse if it is fully ex­posed.

The 14th Chi­nese Amer­i­can Film Fes­ti­val and Chi­nese Amer­i­can TV Fes­ti­val were held in the United States from Oc­to­ber 28 to Novem­ber 30, 2018. Here, guests at a Novem­ber 11 press con­fer­ence in Los An­ge­les pose for a group pic­ture. VCG

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