Analysis & Opinions - Lowy Institute for International Policy

China, America and the Thucydides Trap: An interview with Graham Allison

| Aug. 23, 2017


Graham Allison, Director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs from 1995 until July 2017, is a leading analyst of US national security and defence policy. His latest book, 'Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?', was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in May 2017, and is the subject of this interview, conducted via email over the course of the last few weeks.

Sam Roggeveen: Your book argues that the rise of China is of such a scale that it forces the US to rethink the core premises of its position in the Asia Pacific. In fact, you argue that, because China is likely to be a far larger economic and thus strategic player in coming decades than the US, Washington needs to give up its attempts to maintain strategic primacy in the region. What has been the reaction to your thesis is Washington? Do you get a sense of acceptance or even fatalism about China’s rise among the foreign-policy community there, or is there an unwillingness to grasp the extent of the shift?  

Graham Allison: My sense is that the general attitude in Washington is one of general disbelief, even cognitive dissonance. In the book, I paraphrase former Czech president Václav Havel to say that the rise of China 'has happened so quickly that we have not yet had time to be astonished'. Think, for example, about the major initiative of the Obama Administration in Asia: the pivot or rebalance. Obama announced that Americans would put less weight on their left foot (fighting wars in the Middle East) in order to put more weight on their right (Asia, where the future lies). But while Americans talked, China has just kept growing - at three times the US rate. As a result, if we compare the US and China to two players sitting on opposite ends of a seesaw, the seesaw has tilted to the point that both sets of feet are now dangling entirely off the ground. 

For many Americans, being '#1' is a core part of our identity. Having to cope with a nation that is our equal (and in some arenas has even surpassed us) is a difficult proposition to wrap our heads around. This manifests itself in a number of ways. When I give talks about the book in Washington, it is inevitable that someone in the audience will respond with a common trope: that China's growth is slowing and will soon stagnate, that Chinese can't innovate, that China's many problems will make its ambition to become #1 impossible, or even that Party-led China will soon collapse. But how long have sceptics been making these same arguments? For two decades at least. Former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Herb Stein was certainly right when he announced 'Stein's Law', which asserts that a trend that can't continue forever won't. But my footnote to that reminds us that it is much easier to predict that something will happen than when. So in my view, counting on the collapse of China to solve this problem has been a convenient - but misleading - fantasy. 

To borrow a recent line from your countryman Hugh White about Australia's own predicament, what we face are 'not a comfortable set of questions, and it is not surprising that many people would prefer to evade them'. But as the line goes: reality consists of stubborn facts that do not depend on whether you believe them. The purpose of my book is to sound an alarm for a Washington that I fear is currently sleepwalking towards war with China. And I think it has been having some success on that front. To give one example, when I showed Senator John McCain the graph I use in the book to demonstrate that, by 2024, China could be half-again larger than the US in terms of GDP PPP, he exclaimed with frustration: 'Why has no one shown this to me before?'.

It is not correct to say, however, that I claim that Washington 'needs to give up' primacy. What I argue is that the strategy toward China that America has followed since the end of the Cold War, known as 'engage but hedge', is fundamentally flawed: it is a banner that permits everything and prohibits nothing. It relies on balancing China while hoping that China will become a liberal democracy, or at least accept a subordinate place in the American-led international order. It should now be obvious that this is not going to happen. So in the book I call for us to review all of the strategic options, even the radical, ugly ones. I sketch a spectrum of strategies, from accommodation at one end, to actively undermining the Chinese regime at the other.

SR: You mention Hugh White, who has recently argued that before the US can make any substantial changes to its China policy and its posture in Asia, the President first needs to level with the American people. I suspect Americans would be shocked to hear (even more than John McCain apparently was!) that America can't maintain its current position of primacy in Asia, and must recalibrate. Let's say the Trump Administration did come to the same conclusion as you regarding China's trajectory and what it means for America, how do you think the President should present this to the American people? If #1 status is so intrinsic to US identity, is it realistic for any US president to declare to his people that the era of US dominance is over? 

GA: The book does not address the issue of how an American president could talk candidly to fellow citizens about these realities. As I write in the book, DC has now become an acronym for 'Dysfunctional Capital'. In our current poisonous and polarised politics, it is unlikely that a US president, or candidate for the presidency, would speak clearly about a China that has surpassed the US in a number of important arenas. However, the book presents the stubborn facts. It is now up to our leaders to think about these facts, define our vital national interests, and review the full range of strategic options towards China. Indeed, my argument is that, just as importantly, we must take a hard look at ourselves. In the book I conclude that the US-China competition will be impacted even more by what each does within its borders than by what occurred between them. The fundamental question about both is whether they can find a way to successfully govern themselves. 

SR: Trump's election seemed to signal a break from the foreign-policy orthodoxy which assumed American strategic pre-eminence in Asia was beyond question and should be maintained indefinitely. In that sense, the rise of Trump might be read as a step in the right direction for the policy mix you talk about in this book. Do you agree and, if so, is that outweighed by the risks of Trump? 

GA: As I write in the book, if Hollywood were making a movie pitting China against the US on the path to war, central casting could not find two better leading actors than Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. As personalities, Trump and Xi could not be more different. As protagonists in a struggle to be #1, however, they are similar: each personifies his country's deep aspirations of national greatness. 

In the opening chapter of the Trump Administration, US-China relations have had a bit of a honeymoon - one artfully orchestrated by Xi Jinping and his very effective Ambassador Cui Tiankai by successfully cultivating close personal relations with the Trump family. But how long that honeymoon will last is an open question. Trump has now made the whole relationship with Xi's China dependent on its help in resolving North Korea's nuclear challenge. And since that is a challenge successive American and Chinese presidents have failed to resolve for the past two decades, it is hard to be optimistic at this point. 

SR: Some analysts have suggested that in an Asia in which power is contested among a group of great powers – China, the US, Russia, Japan, India – there is a role for something analogous to the 19th century European concert of powers. Does that model have any attractions for you?  

GA: Yes. In searching for ways to escape Thucydides's Trap, we should search widely - particularly in history. Henry Kissinger’s first book,  A World Restored, offers many clues that could help statesmen if they were seeking to build a Pacific community. 

But we should also remember that the Concert of Europe and the balance of power on the continent worked until it didn't. When the brilliant leaders who so deftly wielded power to uphold peace were gone - Metternich dead, Bismarck dismissed - that peace unraveled. Moreover, we should not forget the three centuries before that.

SR: One thing that might be said in favour of an Asian concert of powers is that the European concert was an inherently conservative instrument, designed to hold back the forces of revolution and maintain the status quo in Europe. It looks as if China is also, in the broadest sense, a status quo power. That is, it wants to improve its position within the existing order and have a much bigger say, but it does not want to overturn that order. Do you agree?

GA: That depends on how you define a status quo power. We must ask: what is the 'existing order'? The US and China have competing conceptions of world order. Chinese believe in harmony through hierarchy, both at home and abroad. The way Beijing treats its own citizens is an instructive proxy for how China is likely to relate to other nations as it becomes more powerful than they are. Americans urge others to accept a 'rules-based international order'. But through Chinese eyes, this appears to be an order in which Americans make the rules, and others obey the orders.

As the Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey observed: 'One of the things that fascinated me about the Chinese is whenever I would have a conversation with them about international standards or international rules of behavior, they would inevitably point out that those rules were made when they were absent from the world stage. They are no longer absent from the world stage, and so those rules need to be renegotiated with them'.

In the book, I pose the question: are China's current leaders serious about displacing the US as the predominant power in Asia in the foreseeable future? And I quote the answer from the person who was until his death in 2015 the world's premier China watcher. As Lee Kuan Yew responded: 'Of course? Why not? How could they not aspire to be Number One in Asia and in time the world?'.

Xi Jinping has described China's engagement in a 'prolonged struggle' over the current international order. The question of how much 'renegotiation' of that order it will demand, and what emerges afterward, is wide open.

SR: On the other hand, it might be argued that, whatever the attractions of a concert or any other great-power arrangement that seeks to accommodate or find a new place for China, the horse has bolted. Given that China's growth will continue to outmatch that of the other great powers, why would Beijing cut any kind of deal now? If it simply waits, grows, and continues its 'salami tactics' in the South China Sea and elsewhere, its position will continue to improve at the expense of others, no?

GA: Here I agree with Kissinger: what China wants for the foreseeable future is not to seize territory from others. Rather, China wants to be accepted as a great power, to command the respect of other great powers in the councils of the world, and receive the deference great nations have always demanded along their borders. As Lee Kuan Yew put it, China wants to be 'accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West'.

SR: I agree, but my question goes to how China will seek to achieve that status. In your book, you suggest, among other options, that the US could try a policy of ad-hoc accommodation, or negotiating a 'long peace'. But given the likely trajectory of Chinese power in comparison to that of the US, what incentive is there for Beijing to strike deals, even highly favourable ones? Wouldn't the Chinese assume that, if present trends continue, they will get much of what they want by default?

GA: Good point and I agree. The Chinese see trend lines running in their favour - what they call 'shi'. But as I describe in the book, from conversations with members of Xi's first team, it is clear that they understand, as one put it to me, that China has 17 huge, almost-insurmountable challenges within its own borders. They have much more realistic and sophisticated analyses of their challenges than any I have seen from outsiders - from governance, maintaining superior rates of economic growth, dealing with mounting debt and coping with a demographic slump, to restoring an environment in which citizens can breathe the air, and a host of others. The Chinese also have a long sense of history and have shown a willingness to shelve problems for a generation - for example, in dealing with Taiwan or the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. They are also hyper-realistic about the consequences of war with the US and determined to do whatever is required to, in Xi‘s words, 'avoid Thucydides's Trap'.

So while as a realist I begin with the objective trend lines, I am not fatalistic or even pessimistic about the China challenge. I am attracted to Pericles's initiative in negotiating the 30 Year Peace. I share Warren Buffett's confidence that no one has ever made money over the long run selling the US short, nor will they. And as I discuss in the book, if we can imagine a surge of creativity among the US and allies like Australia as mind-stretching as the strategy that was devised in the late 1940s for meeting the Soviet challenge, we could find ways for China and the US to share leadership in Asia in the 21st century. And in the search for a viable strategy, Americans have no monopoly on wisdom. So, a great opportunity for your readership!

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“China, America and the Thucydides Trap: An interview with Graham Allison.” Lowy Institute for International Policy, August 23, 2017.