Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

America and China: Destined for Conflict or Cooperation?

| July 30, 2018

The National Interest asked Graham Allison and 13 others scholars and experts to respond to the following question: Given growing tensions between the United States and China, where do you see the overall relationship headed? Toward a permanent state of competition? Potential conflict? Or an eventual restoration of a more friendly and cooperative relationship? Allison's response follows.

Relations between the U.S. and China are destined to get worse before they get worse.

The underlying reason is Thucydides’s Trap. When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, alarm bells should sound: extreme danger ahead. Thucydides explained this dangerous dynamic in the case of Athens’s rise to rival Sparta in classical Greece. In the centuries since then, this storyline has been repeated over and over. The last 500 years saw sixteen cases in which a rising power threatened to displace a major ruling power. Twelve ended in war.

Unless Xi Jinping fails in his ambitions to ‘Make China Great Again,’ China will continue challenging America’s accustomed position at the top of every pecking order. If Xi succeeds, China will displace the U.S. as the predominant power in East Asia in his lifetime. Unless the U.S. redefines itself to settle for something less than ‘Number 1,’ Americans will increasingly find China’s rise discombobulating.

As Thucydides explained, the objective reality of a rising power’s impact on a ruling power is bad enough. But in the real world, these objective facts are perceived subjectively — magnifying misperceptions and multiplying miscalculations. When one competitor ‘knows’ what the other’s ‘real motive’ is, every action is interpreted in ways that confirm that bias.

Under such conditions, the competitors become hostage to third party provocations, or even accidents. An event as bizarre and otherwise inconsequential as the assassination of an archduke in Sarajevo in June 1914 forces one or the other principal protagonists to respond. In doing so, it triggers a spiral of actions and reactions that drag both to an outcome neither wanted. Candidates for that role in the current rivalry include not only Kim Jung-un but political trend lines in a democratic Taiwan, whose citizens have less and less interest in living in China’s Party-driven autocracy.

Having been engaged in intense discussions with many of the leaders of both China and the U.S. over the past 14 months since publication of my book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, my takeaway is that if Thucydides were watching, he would say both parties are entirely on script, accelerating towards a collision that would be as catastrophic as it is unintended.

Escaping Thucydides’s Trap in this case will require a surge of strategic imagination as far beyond the current conventional wisdom in DC and Beijing as the remarkable Cold War strategy crafted by statesmen we now celebrate as the ‘wise men’ was beyond the consensus in Washington at the end of World War II. 

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“America and China: Destined for Conflict or Cooperation?.” The National Interest, July 30, 2018.