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Is war between rising China and dominant America inevitable?

let’s imagine a Chinese “applied history” project, similar to the one at Harvard’s Belfer Center that helped spawn professor Graham Allison’s widely discussed book “Destined for War.” Allison’s historical analysis led him to posit a “Thucydides Trap” and the danger (if not inevitability) of war between a rising China and a dominant America, like the ancient conflict between Athens and Sparta chronicled by the Greek historian Thucydides.

A study by the Belfer Center’s Applied History Project identified 16 similar “rising versus ruling” cases over the past 500 years, 12 of which resulted in war. What would the Chinese say about the lessons of past interactions with the West?

Chinese analysts, from President Xi Jinping on down, have nominally rejected Allison’s pessimistic analysis. “There is no Thucydides Trap,” Xi has argued, claiming that he had devised an alternative “new type of great-power relations” that would avoid war by recognizing that each Asian giant had its own legitimate interests. More recently, he has shifted to arguing that “China and the U.S. must do everything possible to avoid [the] Thucydides Trap.”

Similar protestations have reportedly been offered privately in recent months by a string of senior Chinese officials, and China’s modest cooperation with the United States in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat provides some hope that this is indeed a “win-win” game, as Xi and other Chinese leaders so tirelessly repeat.

An interesting thought experiment would be to imagine a Chinese version of Allison, who decides to examine the ledger from their side. What would such applied history teach the Chinese about their looming intersection with the dominant power of the United States?

I’m no expert on Chinese history or foreign policy, so I’ll simply sketch some areas of possible focus for a hypothetical Sino-Thucydides analysis.

In each case, my imaginary Chinese scholars would apply Allison’s rubric for applied history (developed by the late professor Ernest May), which asked how each case was like its historical antecedent, how it was different and how that evidence might produce a net assessment.

Here’s my list of testable propositions, from a Chinese perspective:

(1) Economic and cultural power is no substitute for military power. China was a dominant economic and intellectual force when it first encountered European power, but it lacked technologically backed military muscle. Mistake.

(2) Weakness breeds contempt. Western powers made a show of pledging loyalty and tribute to China’s rulers and warlords, but this masked hostile intent. The Chinese were wooed and corrupted by the West’s influence. Mistake. Allison quotes Thucydides’ precept: The weak (and by extension, the corrupt) suffer what they must. Rooting out (or at least controlling) corruption is a central Chinese task.

(3) The West preached openness as the way for China and other Asian nations to absorb advanced technology and Western know-how. But the West exploited that openness to create dependence. Even Japan, which built an astonishing manufacturing base, remained dependent on Western raw materials and energy supplies. Mistake. The result was a catastrophic war.

(4) Networks of aid and assistance are good covers for expanding influence and military power. The Marshall Plan was a sublime scheme for spreading U.S. influence and blunting the Soviet Union, in the name of relieving humanitarian suffering. China is devising similar outreach through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the cooperative development project known as “One Belt, One Road.” The United States has done everything it can to prevent other nations from signing up to China’s initiatives. Mistake. Asian development is the handmaiden of Chinese power.

(5) The United States argues that transparency and an international rules-based order are the best guarantee of security for all sides. But what this really means, through modern history, is that the United States makes the rules and others obey the orders. Adherence to the “rules” would have checked China’s expansion into the South China Sea (allowing perpetual U.S. domination). And if last year’s Philippine arbitration ruling had been enforced, it would have rolled back China’s projection of power through reclaimed islands and military bases. Mistake. History teaches that China should proclaim that its intentions are limited, benign and non-military – even as its power expands and it creates the military bases that will allow it to challenge U.S. naval power in the South China Sea.

I’ve stacked the deck here, a bit, with some of the cases that lead many analysts to assume that a rational China, seeing these lessons of history, will opt for a course that increases the likelihood of confrontation. But maybe I’m wrong; maybe there really is an alternative “new type of great-power relations” that would posit different outcomes. I await such an analysis from my imaginary Chinese counterpart to Graham Allison.

David Ignatius

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