News - Asahi Shimbun

Graham Allison: Avoiding A Sino-American War

| Dec. 22, 2017

An interview with Graham Allison in Asahi Shimbun.

Originally published in Japanese. This English language translation was provided by Asahi Shimbun.

There is Xi Jinping of China, who is using the “One Belt, One Road” initiative as a foothold to expand China’s influence. Then there is President Trump of the U.S., who has put forward an inward looking “My Country First”. As the ancient military historian Thucydides warned, are those two great powers, one old and one young, on the path to collision because of their different ways of looking at the world and their values? Scholars of international relations that have analyzed the history of the awesome rivalry between hegemons and rising powers, what knowledge do they have to avoid war?

In November at a summit for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, while Xi Jinping of China spoke of the importance of multilateralism, President Trump of the U.S. pushed his “America First” ideology. It seemed as if the positions of the U.S. and China had switched.

Dr. Allison says:

“[T]he best way to look through the news and noise of the day to the underlying dynamic is to think about the Thucydides trap. [It] provides the best lens for looking through all the noise to see what's the underlying storyline. The underlying storyline is this meteorically rising China and its impact on a ruling U.S.”

“President Xi is the most ambitious leader on the world stage. At the Chinese Communist Party Conference in November, it’s not just that he was chosen again as the highest leader, but he also declined to choose a successor, and his thoughts are now enshrined in the party constitution. In other words, he was crowned the new emperor of China. You can also say he has solidified his position as the strongest leader since Mao Tse Tung. It’s crowded into his three and a half hour work plan. He is revitalizing the party, reorganizing the army, and attempting to fulfill an economic revolution by putting at the top high technology, from robots to artificial intelligence. He is working to restore pride in the Chinese people. In short, he is looking to be a global leader at the midpoint of this century.”

“OBOR’s promise to integrate the countries of Eurasia reflects a vision in which the balance of geostrategic power shifts to China as the epicenter of a rising China continues to draw its neighbors into its orbit, the United States’ position as the guardian of regional stability will be stressed.”

Does the U.S. and China have a relationship that each is incompatible with the other?

“The US and China both see themselves as exceptional, and superior to all others—but they have quite different conceptions of world order. Chinese believe in harmony through hierarchy, both at home and abroad. To see how they propose to order Asia, examine the way they order their own society. By contrast, Americans urge other powers to accept a ‘rules-based international order.’ But in Chinese eyes, this appears to be an order in which Americans make the rules, and others obey the orders.”

“At the end of the Cold War, so go back to 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, there emerged in both policy circles and in the academy, lots of the academy, a theory. It was part of the unipolar paradigm. The theory said, and it was famously presented by Frank Fukuyama in his book called The End of History, that we now have had the end of history in the sense that democratic capitalism has won. Everybody will now see, to become wealthy, you have to have market-based capitalism. Then when they become wealthy, they will become democratic, and when they become democratic, they will be peaceful. Tom Friedman popularized this with the famous golden arch theory. Two countries that have McDonald's golden arches cannot fight each other. When we look back on this 25 years later, this seems a little naïve. China's form of market-based capitalism is state-directed, state-protected, mercantilist capitalist, and it's working great. It's worked great for this period.”

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It seems that President Trump is harming the U.S. position as a hegemonic power. Isn’t he withdrawing from the open, liberal, rules based order that the US has supported?

“Trump is the most unusual leader that we've seen certainly in a great power in our lifetimes, and he's not experienced in international affairs, so he's learning, but he's a fast learner...In last year’s election, he succeeded at two thing that people didn’t believe was possible: getting enough delegates to be the Republican Party Candidate and winning in the actual election. That confidence is unmeasurable. But both he and Xi are similar on that point of being confident enough to think that they are able to direct everything. Trump has also undermined the thinking that most people concerned with international negotiations have, that one should refrain from words and deeds that are unpredictable. In negotiations, he freely uses improvisation, and has a keen intuition. Underestimation is a bad idea.”

“It is worrying that American Democracy is displaying fatal symptoms. The partisan divide is extreme, the deterioration of relations between the Congress and the White House has forced paralysis on the national budget and international opinion, and the citizens are losing faith in the government. ”

“I worry that American democracy is exhibiting fatal symptoms. D.C. has become an acronym for Dysfunctional Capital: a swamp in which partisanship has grown poisonous, relations between the White House and Congress have paralyzed basic functions like budgets and foreign agreements, and public trust in government has all but disappeared. At the same time…[t]echnology is making China’s current system of governance obsolete. Young urbanites with smartphones cannot be sustainably governed by Beijing bureaucrats who track every citizen as part of an omnipresent social credit system…[T]he biggest challenge for both the US and China in the longer run will be whether each can make its system of government function to deliver what citizens demand. ”

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Eventually, will there be a military collision between the US and China?

“[T]he risk of war is increasing. As discussed earlier, the primary reason is the Thucydidean dynamic between a rising China and a ruling America, not Trump’s personality. ”

“Actually, cases in which a hegemon or rising power aimed to settle a dispute through war based on their own intentions is historically unusual...Thucydides's main story is that this dangerous dynamic between the rising power and the ruling power leaves both parties vulnerable to third-party actions that were not intended by either of us, not desired by either of us, but which happen...In the current situation, the leading candidate for the provocateur or third party could hardly be invented by central casting better, Kim Jong-un in North Korea. ”

“Kim Jong-un is, in the next 12 months, going either to test ICBMs, more ICBMs, and therefore come to have a credible threat to hit the U.S. with nuclear weapons, or Donald Trump is going to prevent him from doing this by a military strike. If the former is not accepted, then the latter is accompanied by a high risk of leading to a Sino-American War...Which brings us to hope, and even pray for a minor miracle in which Xi and Trump, acting together, convince Kim to halt his nuclear advance”

As an American ally, what stance should Japan take?

“As China grows larger, the incentives for the US to solidify ties with strong allies grows — and Japan is the best example. With the third largest economy in the world and long, deep ties with the U.S., Japan becomes even more important for the U.S. Similarly, as China grows, alliance with the U.S. becomes ever more important for Japan...Abe has made clear his determination to seize every provocation, including Kim Jung Un’s missile tests as ammunition for his campaign to revise the pacifist constitution..We should welcome a strong Japan.”

“On the other hand, even as it welcomes a stronger Japan, the U.S. has to recognize that the deep historical divisions between China and Japan, and the current dispute between them over islands in the East China Sea present special risks. Conflict between Japan and China could drag the U.S. into a war that it would otherwise have never chosen.”

There is the view that great powers with nuclear weapons do not fight wars with each other. The U.S. and China are also now bound together deeply with economic ties. Despite this, could war erupt?

“[E]ven though the U.S. and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, in 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis, John Kennedy took what he thought was a one in three chance of nuclear war to prevent the Soviet Union placing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba…[In]the decade before World War One...Britain and Germany's economies had become completely interdependent, no one thought either side would choose war, but World War One happened. Despite all of that, economic interdependence did not become supportive of a peaceful relationship. ”

“It is important to build a foundation of the shared interests of hegemons and rising powers. This would be things like policies to prevent global warming, an issue where we’d be ruined together if we do not cooperate.”

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What should be done to avoid war?

“There’s no silver bullet. The major point of my book is diagnosis not prescription. As the medical profession has learned, operating on a patient before understanding the cause of his illness is malpractice. So the first step is to understand that the U.S. and China now find themselves in a Thucydidean dynamic. A rising China is threatening to displace a ruling U.S. This is not a problem that is subject to a quick ‘fix.’ It is a condition, a chronic condition that will have to be managed over a generation. But in the final chapter of the book, I try to draw lessons from the previous cases to provide pointers as we begin to address your issue. Recognition that we face extreme risks will force us to see that this demands more than business as usual. We need to stretch to extreme imagination and adaptability.”

“As the book shows, in the last 500 years, I find 16 cases when a rising power threatens to displace a major ruling power. 12 of those end in war...Similarly in the Cold War, you have the rising Soviet Union, an impact on the U.S. Particularly after the Cuban missile crisis, both parties decided, ‘We'd better constrain this competition so that for sure we don't slip into a war or stumble into a war that we don't want.’ So, we developed a hotline so we could talk directly, then we developed some agreements, arms control agreements, so I won't do this if you don't do that, some transparency agreements so you can see what we're doing. If you want to attack me, you're free, but don't do it by mistake. I think there's many lessons from the Cold War that would apply in this case.”

“As Santayana taught us, only those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it. If we learn and apply the lessons from earlier cases in which some statesmen succeeded, and others failed, Xi and Trump can manage this relationship without war.”

Interviewer: Wataru Sawamura, US General Bureau Chief

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Graham Allison: Avoiding A Sino-American War.” News, Asahi Shimbun, December 22, 2017.