In Beijing and Washington, it is now common for foreign-policy thinkers to see the world’s two superpowers as trapped on a path toward eventual war.
U.S. President Donald Trump doesn’t talk about it, but Chinese President Xi Jinping does. The idea the two giants are being pulled toward war has been labelled the Thucydides Trap by Harvard political scientist Graham Allison. The puzzle Dr. Allison and others are contemplating now is how to escape.
For Canada, and for most of the world, that idea also begs another question – whether we are doomed to be bystanders.
Dr. Allison will be in Ottawa to talk about the trap at an event hosted by the Public Policy Forum on Tuesday. But he acknowledges he doesn’t have a straightforward solution for how superpowers can break the trap, or for how other countries such as Canada can cope. His point is it is time to start thinking about it.
Dr. Allison named it the Thucydides Trap after the ancient Greek historian who wrote of the causes of the Peloponnesian War. The rise of Athens, Thucydides concluded, instilled fear in the established power, Sparta, making war inevitable. Or almost inevitable. Dr. Allison’s team reviewed 16 similar cases over 500 years, where a rising power challenged a ruling one, and found that in 12 cases, it led to war.
His 2015 article and a 2017 book, Destined for War, are now a widely discussed paradigm in Beijing and Washington. China’s meteoric rise made the rivalry plainer, as did the collapse of the long-held expectation that a rising China would one day transform it into a liberal democracy. Once that illusion was dispelled, the rationale for the U.S. relationship with China reverted to the idea that it is a strategic adversary.
“I think increasingly, in Washington, China is seen as the strategic adversary, or enemy,” Dr. Allison said in an interview.
In the three years since he sent his book to the printers, Dr. Allison has seen that idea grow not just in Mr. Trump’s administration, but across the U.S. political spectrum.
A trade war has spilled into a tech war, including the question of whether equipment made by Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei will be allowed into the next-generation, 5G networks of Western countries. There are new barriers to the trade of semiconductors, the use of operating systems, research co-operation and suspicion of foreign students as potential spies.
The danger is that such rivalries can be triggered into war. “Something happens in Taiwan, and then China reacts, then the U.S. feels obliged to react, then one thing leads to another and we end up with a general war,” Dr. Allison said.
Dr. Allison said he has looked at several potential avenues for escape, “none of which is very compelling,” but is now working on the notion of “rivalry partners” – the idea that the two powers could agree to remain fierce rivals in some areas, such as technology, and partners in others, such as climate change.
There’s another aspect of the dynamic that should be of interest to non-superpowers such as Canada: whether they can do anything other than get squeezed. Thucydides, Dr. Allison noted, had a phrase for the lot of lesser powers: “The weak suffer what they must.”
He said allies such as Australia and Japan tell the United States to force them to choose between their economic relationship with China and their security relationships with the U.S. “They’re not going to choose,” Dr. Allison said. “They’re going to be in this painful straddle.”
Canada and several other allies face a decision on whether to allow Huawei equipment into their 5G networks – accepting would threaten U.S. intelligence co-operation, while rejecting risks Chinese commercial retaliation. Most countries, Dr. Allison said, seem to be trying to kick the can down the road. In the end, he said, countries Canada and Germany will still have economic relations with China after such choices. But there will be stresses from the process.
What can non-superpowers do? Dr. Allison pointed to Japan’s revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement after the U.S. withdrew as one idea. Middle powers can make clubs with rules that the U.S. might one day rejoin, changing the power correlation with China. That could give them “some degree” of influence in some spheres, Dr. Allison suggested. But they are still facing a squeeze in a superpower rivalry.
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