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Will we avoid eventual war with a rising China? Mondale and Allison explore the question

REUTERS/Bobby Yip
China is an ancient civilization, and one that carries a long-ago memory of a time when it was the strongest and most advanced power on Earth.

Thucydides, a general of fourth century B.C. Athens who fought in the Peloponnesian Wars against the rising city-state of Sparta, was also a historian/philosopher who wrote a book about those wars.

In that history, he observed that an established power (which Sparta was, in his day) will view with alarm the rise of a rival power (Athens was the rising power). In such a circumstance, Thucydides wrote, if the old and the new power aren’t smart or careful or lucky, they will end up having a war (or, in the Peloponnesian case, a series of wars) over which one is going to end up dominant.

Thucydides never used the term, but Harvard scholar Graham Allison assigned the name “The Thucydides Trap” to a recurring pattern in world history in which wars have occurred because an established power saw a threat to its position from the rise of a newer power. The newer power is not generally interested in being told that the divvying up of the world’s spheres of influence already occurred and can’t be renegotiated because everyone else is happy with it.

Allison titled his 2017 book “Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’ Trap?”

I haven’t read “Destined for War.” But I bought a copy immediately after hearing Allison, and his old friend former Vice President Walter Mondale, talk about the question yesterday at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. Apparently, back when he was vice president, Mondale traveled to China five times to work on the changing Sino-American relationship and, in that context, became friends with Allison.

(Just to refresh your memory, for 30 years after the 1949 Communist Revolution until 1979, the United States took the position that the “Red Chinese,” who controlled all of mainland China, were nonetheless not the legal government of China. Instead, the 30-year U.S. position was that the non-Communist nationalist Chinese, who controlled only the island of Taiwan, were the actual government of China, including the overwhelming majority of its territory, over which the nationalists had no control. In 1979, the Carter Mondale administration recognized the reality of who was the government of China.)

I was alarmed and illuminated by the Allison-Mondale discussion yesterday. Illuminated, because both men have thought long and deeply about the Sino-American relationship, and alarmed because the first part of Allison’s title about that relationship is “Destined for War.”

As usual in these “Thucydides trap” situations, as explained by Allison, the rising power naturally expects its new power to be recognized in the division of the world’s spoils. The existing power tries to explain that the world’s power equation was settled previously, and arrangements were made for the fruits of that power before the rising power had risen. Perhaps you can see how that explanation is unacceptable to the rising power.

Through good statecraft or good luck, we have managed to avoid, so far, a war between two nuclear powers, but how lucky or smart will we be going forward? Allison, who has talked about the “trap” in China and America, and is now 78, seems to be devoting top priority to calling attention to the risks of the Thucydides trap, in the Sino-American case, and urging the leaders of both nations to commit themselves to learning the right lessons, in hopes of staying out of wars.

The worst outcome of the trap can be and has been avoided in some previous cases. Allison’s book identifies 16 cases that fit the trap — cases where a dominant power was alarmed by the rise of a challenger. Four times, the ending was relatively peaceful. Twelve times, the powers fell into Thucydides “trap,” which was a war.

The most recent happy ending was quite recent. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry has at least declined (and, of course, the Soviet Union has been dismantled without a major war, although Russia remains a major and nuclear-armed power).

Even if the tale of the U.S.-rivalry isn’t over, I have the impression that Allison is counting that Thucydides trap case as one of the successes. At least, in a 2017 essay for “Foreign Policy,” he wrote:

In the end, the Soviet Union imploded, and the Cold War ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

The U.S.-Soviet Cold War was special, one could say, because it was the first great power-versus-rising power tale to occur after the invention of weapons capable of destroying life on Earth. But those weapons still exist, in large numbers on both sides of the U.S.-China rivalry, which is certainly an argument in favor of making it the latest “Thucydides trap” situation to be solved short of war.

Can the United States and China dodge the bullet? Allison didn’t say yesterday, and I gather he doesn’t say in the book either. But he did say:

This is a war that doesn’t have to happen, if we manage the situation correctly.

And, in an essay for Politico on Memorial Day of 2017, Allison wrote a piece titled: “What do the living owe the dead?” The short answer: “The courage and the wisdom to prevent the next war.”

China is, of course, an ancient civilization, and one that carries a long-ago memory of a time when it was the strongest and most advanced power on Earth. But China has now lived through a couple of centuries of being treated, mostly by Europeans, as a lesser power, virtually a European colony. That treatment is no longer acceptable to China.

The Chinese are now the dominant power in Asia, and, Mondale said yesterday, they have “made it clear they want us out of there.”

China is also the biggest economy in the world, Allison said. Many Americans can’t wrap their minds around that fact, he said, and it isn’t true on a per capita basis. But in sheer economic size there is no other possible conclusion. And the gap is growing at an unimaginable rate.

According to Allison, looking at the comparison between the economic growth rate of China vs. the United States in the past decade, China, in its worst year since 2008, grew at double the rate that the United States grew in its best year during that decade.

Please go back and read that previous paragraph again if you weren’t paying close attention. It is a breathtaking fact. China is already a bigger economy than ours, and its annual growth rate is more than doubling our growth rate every year.

As China grows and prospers, is it democratizing? Not even slightly, Allison said. Chinese leader Xi Jinping controls everything. No alternative to Communist Party control has any chance of developing. If you have a different vision of how that should work, you can count on going to prison Allison said. The joke in China, said Allison, is that Xi doesn’t operate like a CEO but like a COE, and that stands for “Chief Of Everythying.”

Mondale added that China shamelessly steals intellectual property of U.S. firms in violation of all international rules and norms. America’s big advantage in economic competition with China is that our open society is more creative. China offsets that advantage by simply stealing the U.S.-created intellectual property of any firm that does business there. “We’ve got to stop that,” Mondale said, but he didn’t say how.

A member of the audience asked Mondale what he sees by way of Trump administration policy toward dealing with China. Mondale replied:

That’s one of the things that concerns me the most. There doesn’t seem to be any rational policy, as far as bringing his best people together to solve these problems. This is a president who doesn’t read anything, has bad instincts to boot, and he’s already on his second secretary of state and his third national security adviser. I think it’s bedlam over there.

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Comments (8)

Fears of China rising overblown?

Some Thoughts on US Fears of a Rising China and the US role in East and Southeast Asia;

Fears of China in the US have been cyclical, with periods of anti-US sentiments in China or anti-China in the US. Often these resurface during a US presidential election season, but rise of a strong leader in Xi Jinping and increasing pessimism by China experts in US feels like a new situation, as does the rise of a weak leader in Trump and the increasing bewilderment of US experts also feels like a new situation. But the core and daily interactions and relationships between these two countries that complement one another well goes on---business, academic exchanges, military to military cooperation, growing cultural sharing across the Pacific.

Now China is richer, better led, and starting to use its growing power and that worries the US. But fears of a resurgent China are not new. After the end of WWII and the winning of the civil war by the CCP, a near hysteria broke out in the US about “red hordes” and “yellow peril” and, later in the 1960s, “blue ants” swarming over the US. This led directly to the infamous McCarthy purges (black lists) of the 1950s, which targeted China specialists first, and ultimately weakened US capacity for engaging and understanding China.

The historical record since China "opened" has shown China hesitant to openly challenge the US, fearing conflict that could derail its rise. And, despite hopes of the US, China has never moved to become a western-style or even Japanese-style liberal democracy. What has changed is that China based US specialists believe the US is enmeshed in social disorder, political chaos, relative military decline, and economic decay—all providing an opportunity for China to push its interests forward on the global scene.

The reality of US having a confrontation with China is not new as well. China and US fought two wars on opposite sides (Korea and Vietnam) and the US today maintains military bases and naval and air patrols that surround China completely. The Chinese cannot take a step outside their coastal waters without risking a confrontation with the US 7th Fleet, a deep frustration for the Chinese military and a humiliation the US would certainly not tolerate in our own coastal waters.

Of course China is challenging the US—resurgent leadership under Xi Jinping, the Belt & Road Initiative, missile placements around China’s perimeters (aimed at Taiwan), increasingly aggressive naval presence in East and South China Seas, forward development of off shore islands fortified as military bases--all these send signals to the US that China intends to resume its long held position as the dominant power in East and Southeast Asia.

But models of rising and falling powers need to take into account what each side has to gain and lose. A war with the US would derail China's economic rise, shut down its global ambitions, and lead to tighter hostile ring of US allies around its sea borders. China has a lot to gain by subtly pushing the US to pursue its national interests, taking advantage of Washington's chaos, but nothing to gain from war with the most powerful military on earth.

The main trap facing the US is believing that China is a threat. Time for the US to use its powerful regional allies, "third neighbor" relationships throughout Asia, and global economic and cultural power to engage in the region in ways that allow China's normal economic and political growth but maintain core US interests. The US is an Asia Pacific power and must remain one, but alienating allies, withdrawing from economic accords, and threatening trade wars will not maintain these core interests.

How does that 'good luck' deal work

The factor that really turns one pessimistic on avoiding the Trap is the deteriorating interest in democracy among people in relatively democratic countries along with rising populist nationalism. A world filled with democratic nations is a peaceful world. But our country seems to be leading the way with a large minority but major party prone to backwards thinking and able to install an administration that can fulfill their dubious goals.

What is a War?

Perhaps the "war" with China is already going on. It's not a conventional war--China and the US aren't shooting at each other, or launching missiles--but there is an ongoing quest for primacy that looks like a war conducted by non-lethal means.

Trade wars and trade disputes are only a part of the fight. China is engaged in a long-game play for influence not just in Asia and the Pacific Rim, but in Africa and Latin America. The Belt and Road Initiative will extend that influence into Europe. his extension is not just about making money. In an economy such as China's that is so tightly entwined with the government, nothing is "just business." Economic leverage is being applied to plant the seeds of political influence.

American political culture is helping, or not hindering, China's ascendancy. Our instinct towards insularity creates openings for any other power with the means and the will to exploit them. Stepping back from any engagement with Iran, for example, leaves a vacuum that China will be more than happy to fill. Additionally, the American tendency to see geopolitics in transactional terms of "deal making" does little to counter a nation that sees politics and diplomacy today as a part of a centuries-long continuum. The need to produce immediate results doesn't give any incentive for thinking in terms of decades or centuries.

There is no clear winner, and no clear end, to a non-violent war like this. The Cold War ended when one of the two main antagonists collapsed under its own weight. Unless China somehow "collapses," I don't think we will ever see such a clear end.

"...To see ourselves as others see us."

A few points come to mind (many more, actually, but in the interest of brevity I'll only share a few):

1--As noted, the Thucydides Trap is an ongoing subject for discussion, and appropriately so. It's worth noting that a key part of that was not mentioned, i.e., it is smaller and weaker allies that tend to drag the old reigning power into these conflicts with rising powers, not just the direct competition between them. Thus what happen with in and with Japanese society is central to how US/China relations unfold.

2--It is interesting to note that even such august figures as Allison & Mondale (at least in Eric Black's synopsis) seem to have an ahistorical perspective on the US. For example, the US was intensely protectionist until the post-WWII era and thievery of the intellectual property of the times (the Arkwright textile system in 1797, the bootlegging of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", amongst infinite examples) was central to the US own industrial development and economic rise.

3--The comments above by Sherry Gray merit thoughtful reflection as they provide useful meta-perspectives and national interests context on the US/China relationship.

4--Never forget that the very basic cultural comparisons, most associated with the work of Geert Hofstede, strongly emphasize that the Chinese cultural perceptions of time are vastly different from Anglo-American cultures. Specifically, the Chinese (or Confucian, as Hofstede initially identified it) is much, much longer term in orientation. Secondly, the difference between assumptions about time as synchronous in Chinese traditions (a systems theory approach) vs. typically Anglo-American linear (simple cause-->effect analysis) are crucial. In an industrial economy, the linear tends to dominate, but in a networked economy, the synchronous is vastly superior. Therein lieth the rub.........

5--A revisionist perspective that I recommend viewing and reflecting upon was provided by Eric Li in a TEDTalk back in 2013. Whether completely accurate or not is, as with all presentations, worthy of debate, however he quite effectively reframes the things we assume both about the US and China: https://www.ted.com/talks/eric_x_li_a_tale_of_two_political_systems/disc...

We have moved from the view

We have moved from the view of China as that portrayed by Pearl S Buck to the high-tech cosmopolitan Shanghai, but it is really a range that encompasses both. China faces enormous problems with jobs, wages, opportunities and resources for its population. It has a clear-eyed view of the impact of globally limited resources, decreasing environmental quality, climate change, and the social impact of increasing automation and job loss. Their long-term policies have to do with confronting those challenges in a manner that promotes the interests of their country and people. They want guaranteed access to resources, customers anchored to their products, distribution routes and channels that can't be easily disrupted. It's represented by their Road and Belt initiative and by the increased outright purchase and long-term leasing of overseas resources.

Will that come into conflict with the US ?

I doubt it.

From a practical standpoint, the commercial interests of China interlock too much with the corporate interests of the US. There are too many reasons to back down and cooperate between multinational commercial interests.

As for philosophical reasons for war, there is less appetite in the remainder of the world for that mysterious "democracy" that the US nattered on about for the last 50 years or so and fought and failed to inculcate in various parts of the world. The "secret-sauce" of US democracy has gone beyond its sell-by date and is no longer the pole-star of established or growing countries--even in the US.

There will not be any appetite in the region for a grand war of democratization. There will be no appetite in the region for the massive commercial disruption of the war. A military reaction from the US to the realities of China would be the work of a madman--to be universally condemned by the world and region.

More clearly asked... on what

More clearly asked... on what pretext would there be a war between the US and China ?

Intellectual property infringement ?

Unfair trade practices ?

The development of small islands in South China sea?

The myth of China's historical naval reach ?

Fishing rights of Vietnam and Philippines ?

Sea routes for the US Navy ?

Increasing military domination of the region ?

Can't see it at all--colonialism is dead.

Size of the economies

The difference between the absolute size of economies and the per capita size of economies is significant. When the per capita size is larger, there are more resources available beyond those necessary for survival that can be used for war or for other forms of competition. In those terms, we still have an economic advantage.
I also think that China has decided (and the difference in time frames mentioned above is significant) that to choose its battle field (another ancient Chinese principle) as economic rather than military. And it's a constrained battle since we are China's biggest market and a major food source. I think that the Chinese leadership understands another ancient Greek trap: Pyrrhic victories.

My 2¢

As is often the case, I'm inclined toward Mr. Rovick and Mr. Brandon. Rovick, in particular, seems on to something important but not usually stated in his 12:45 comment: What would be the pretext or justification for war between China and the U.S.? I also liked Paul Brandon's totally appropriate use of "Pyrrhic victories."

Beyond that, a couple of other things occur to me, though I take no position on their relative value:

First, what Mondale and Allison could have said, but didn't, is that "the American Century" is over. Historians and economists might have reached that conclusion a long time ago, but it's only now leaking out into the general public, and is, I'd argue, an unarticulated, but real, nonetheless, reason for at least some of the support for the Current Occupant of the Oval Office.

Second, a brief item from Harper's weekly notebook: “Trump, who in 2016 accused China of perpetrating "the greatest" theft of US jobs "in the history of the world," tweeted that there were "too many job losses in China" and then announced that he would delay enacting new tariffs on Chinese goods.” Those same supporters of the Current Occupant ought to take the astonishing hypocrisy of that Harper's quote to heart.