A recent book by the nuclear expert and Harvard professor Graham Allison, ominously titled Destined for War, argues that the US and China are slipping into what he calls the “Thucydides trap.” The reference is to the Greek historian’s claim that: “What made [the Peloponnesian] war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” Athens, a rising state, challenged Sparta’s former dominance, and, despite efforts to avoid confrontation and manage their rivalry, the two ended up destroying themselves in a decades-long military feud.
Are the US and China “destined for war”? Some have seen the likely location of confrontation as the South China Sea, where China has been asserting claims and building reefs into naval bases. Many voices in Washington have called for a tough response, and the Trump Administration has conducted three “freedom of navigation” operations since taking office, with a US destroyer passing through the Spratly Islands, claimed by China, as recently as August 10.
In fact, the South China Sea is just one of three key areas of possible conflict between Washington and Beijing. The other two are, first, trade and industrial policy, and, second, North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests. All three issues are potentially explosive, with major uncertainties and incentives for risky posturing. Will Trump and Xi Jinping be able to handle them?
On the one hand, Trump brings to the relationship certain traits that could help reduce tensions. He has no sentimentality about human rights and will not criticize China’s domestic policies. He apparently feels at home with authoritarian leaders such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Egypt’s General Sisi. He has a predilection for big and unexpected deals. In these regards—and certain others—he is quite Nixonian. But he lacks the patience and strategic understanding of Nixon, and, whatever his strengths, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is hardly a Kissinger.
On the Chinese side, Xi is at the pinnacle of power domestically, having consolidated control relentlessly during his first term. The 19th Party Congress this fall is likely to reveal whether he plans to step down after the customary two terms or to reshape the system under him. However, despite this, it is not clear how much usable leverage he has over Kim Jong-Un and how hard he would be prepared to press him. He is strong enough at home to offer concessions on trade, but it is less obvious what Trump has to offer in return other than promises not to blow up the bilateral trade relationship or—God forbid—the Korean peninsula. Trump’s main threat is to push the two countries together over a cliff. The scariest part is that he may not be bluffing.
On trade, Trump has surprised some by adopting—so far—a relatively restrained posture. Hosting Xi at his Mar-a-Lago estate in April, he worked on creating a picture of personal rapport. His administration has now initiated a Section 301 investigation over China’s forced technology transfer and theft of intellectual property. But this begins a long process, during which there will be many opportunities to ratchet up or ratchet down.
At present, the priority is clearly North Korea. The US is gradually increasing pressure on China on several fronts in the hope of prompting Beijing to intervene more effectively with Pyongyang. Besides the trade investigation and beefed up naval enforcement actions in the South China Sea, Trump’s war of words and sabre rattling with Kim is partly aimed at making Beijing nervous. Such pressures will probably be sustained in the leadup to Trump’s planned state visit to Beijing in November, at which the US President will seek to strike some kind of comprehensive deal.
No decision has been made in Washington on whether to accept China’s rise—pushing back only symbolically against its South China Sea expansion and seeking accommodation on trade—or to intensify confrontation. Lacking a strategy, the US administration will end up reacting to events and accidents as they arise. China under Xi has a clear aim. What is unclear is how great are the risks he is willing to take in pursuing it, and how impatient he will be in asserting his country’s great power status. Whether the US and China fall deeper into the “Thucydides trap” over the next few years will depend, to an unusual extent, on the two leaders.