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China-U.S. Ties Should Focus on 'Shared Interest'

| Apr. 17, 2019

By Zhao Huanxin 

Harvard's Allison hopes two countries can escape the 'Thucydides Trap'

The United States and China should manage competition and cooperation at the same time by identifying and working on areas of shared interest, the Harvard professor who has been hunting for solutions to the "Thucydides Trap" has said.

While competition is inevitable, the two powers can work together to prevent unexpected provocations that may drag both into war, fight climate change, and manage international financial crises, senior political scientist Graham Allison, author of the 2017 book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? told China Daily.

Based on 5th century BC Athenian historian Thucydides' observation that "it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable", Allison wrote that of the 16 times a rising power challenged a ruling power in the past 500 years, 12 ended in war but four did not.

"Our objective, and our hope is going to have this exception" for China and the US, Allison said on the sidelines of the three-day Harvard College China Forum held between April 12 and 14.

Since the book was published in 2017, Allison has elaborated on nine possible avenues of escape, all of which are interesting but none of which is "yet compelling", he said.

Allison, who served as assistant secretary of defense under US President Bill Clinton in the 1990s and earlier served as a special adviser in the Defense Department under President Ronald Reagan, seemed to continue to find the guide to the future in the past.

The founding dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government said he had derived one of his "most exciting" ideas from modern US and ancient Chinese history.

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy, in reexamining the US attitude toward the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, famously said, "If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity."

On the other hand, history shows that in AD 1005, a "rivalry partnership" was formed between the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) to its north.

Drawing from the history, people can take these two ideas and put them together, as the US and China are competitors-vigorous competitors in some arenas-and serious partners in other arenas, according to Allison.

"It sounds like a contradiction to diplomats. But in business, it's not such a crazy idea. So businesses talk of something they call 'coopetition'," he said.

The professor noted that the change of some in the US viewing China as a "strategic adversary", compared with a strategic partner a generation ago, is a "very serious development".

"If the US defines China as an adversary or enemy, I think it will ensure that China will eventually become an adversary or enemy," he said. "If two enemies who think of themselves as enemies are caught up in the Thucydides rivalry, they'd be even more vulnerable to these external actions that could shock them to an outcome they don't want."

Despite the competition or rivalry, there are many areas in which neither the US nor China can achieve its "minimum essential interest" for itself without serious, deep cooperation with the other party, he said.

"So we should identify those areas that we should work on," he said. "The first one, and the one that I'm most interested in, is in avoiding third parties provoking us into a war that we don't want."

Second, the two countries have to work together on the climate change problem. Despite the current White House's policy, everybody else understands that neither the US nor China can by itself avoid greenhouse gas emissions that will make a biosphere in which neither country can survive, he said.

The third area is managing international financial crises. Allison said the 2008 financial crisis that was caused essentially by some irresponsible practices of US banks was at the verge of becoming a great depression, which would have been like the last Great Depression of the 1930s, or perhaps even deeper.

But it was prevented only by deep cooperation between China and the US, he said.

"So if we have identified arenas in which we have shared interest, we should work hard on the ones that we have shared interest, that actually helps provide a bigger framework and context for the areas in which we will have competing and conflicting interests," Allison said.

Managing competition and cooperation at the same time could be "pretty difficult". But it is going to be the challenge going forward to escaping the Thucydides Trap, he said.

"I would say everyone has a stake in this," Allison said, referring to finding ideas to work out the Thucydides conundrum.

"I'm eager to hear more such ideas. If you have a good idea, send it to me," he said.


  – Via China Daily.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:China-U.S. Ties Should Focus on 'Shared Interest'.” News, China Daily, April 17, 2019.