The United States, China, and the Thucydides Trap

The United States, China, and the Thucydides Trap

by Commander Gregg Sanders

Little did I know when I signed up for The Historian’s Art and The Strategic Dimensions of China’s Rise at the Fletcher School this Spring that the two classes would be both fascinating and mutually reinforcing at the same time. Given the existing strategic climate, world events, and the rise of a new United States administration, the applicability is only heightened. The Historian’s Art class is especially enlightening, as it delves into multiple historical analogies as tools for analysis of other events, past, present, and future. After reading The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, we discussed how the train of events leading up to World War I are similar to the current environment in the Pacific, where the US and China are grappling for power and influence in an economically integrated world. Just as a world war was unthinkable in the summer of 1914, surely a Sino-American War is inconceivable now. After reading large tracts from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, the conversation easily turned to the so-called “Thucydides Trap,” where an established power fears the rise of a new contender in world affairs and is inextricably drawn to war: “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.”[i]  So, can the US avoid the Thucydides Trap? Is a future war with China both a forgone conclusion and in American’s long-term interests, or a potential disaster on the order of the First World War?

These are not simple questions, and what appears to be certain today may not be so readily apparent ten or even five years in the future. Clearly, the US has multiple concerns with China’s growing military and economic influence, coupled with its aggressive, or at the very least provocative, behavior in the region. China, for its part, believes its rightful place as a regional, if not global, hegemon is inherent. The CCP is also unappreciative of what it perceives as US strategic moves to keep it contained, akin to its Cold War policy aimed at the Soviet Union. Chinese and US military and economic interests are intensely at odds in many respects, while economic interconnectedness hangs over these disputes like a rising storm. 

Tensions in the region are palpable. Both sides have valid points - stances that make the tug-of-war of international relations so demanding. James Fallows, discussing the Thucydides Trap vis-a-vis China, points out that US-China relations are extremely important, inordinately complex, and possibly precarious if not managed astutely. Graham Allison, father of the trap terminology, illuminates through an exhaustive study that war between ascending and established powers happens more often than not, but is far from inevitable. I would argue avoiding war is tantamount. So how does the United States proceed?

Hopefully, unlike the Spartans and Athenians of ancient Greece or the alliances of 1914, the US can focus on and steer China towards areas of mutual interest and benefit, while dealing calmly with issues of conflict. The US should stand firm on issues such as Taiwan’s right to self-determination, freedom of navigation, cyber aggression, and human rights. China’s island-building campaign is also troubling. In a hardline example, America must push back legally and economically, at the very least, while making it clear that militarization of these islands will not be tolerated. Yet, at the same time, there exists much opportunity on fronts such as counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as a myriad of prospects for economic engagement and resource management. China has tangible domestic concerns centered on quality of life for its people, specifically pollution. The US can leverage China’s unease to foster bi-lateral or multi-lateral agreements on a multitude of environmental issues, while subtly nudging the Chinese people and government towards a less authoritarian interpretation of their country. The view from both Washington and Beijing should suggest that enmity, much less war, would be much costlier than teamwork and peace.

Prior to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts the Athenian contention that “no one can quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the best provision that it can for its interest.”[ii] This perspective is no less true today than it was in 431 B.C.  The United States must find ways of reconciling its national interests with those of China in an environment not only fraught with peril, but ripe with opportunity. Toshi Yoshihara, professor from the China’s Rise class, perhaps sums it up best: “Washington should cautiously accept some of Beijing’s claims to leadership in Asian waters, conditioning its approval on China’s willingness to participate in regional maritime activities…which in theory should advance mutual political aims.”[iii] There is much to be gained by working together and unquestionably orders of magnitude more to be lost in the absence of such cooperation. 


[i] Hanson, Victor Davis. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. Simon and Schuster, 1998, 16.

[ii] Hanson, Victor Davis. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. Simon and Schuster, 1998, 43.

[iii] Yoshihara, Toshi, and James Holmes. Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy. Naval Institute Press, 2011, 177.


About the Author

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Gregg “Peepers” Sanders is the former Commanding Officer of VFA-147 and is currently a Navy Federal Executive Fellow at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University. The words expressed here are his personal views and do not reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or Tufts University.

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