COMMENTARY: The inevitability of war between China and US

Many readers will never have heard of Thucydides. Nor will they know much, if anything, of the Peloponnesian Wars and how they might relate to the upcoming war between the United States and China.

Even fewer readers will have heard of Harvard Professor Graham Allison or his new book, “Destined for War.” By that, Prof. Allison means war between the United States and China. And he means soon.

Prof. Allison is best known for his definitive history of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Essence of Decision” (1971). He describes himself as a student of the old Soviet Union until its demise beginning in 1989 and thereafter. Since then, he has turned his attention to China.

It seems unlikely that very many politicians have read Thucydides’ entire history of the Peloponnesian Wars, which lasted 27 years in the Fifth Century B.C.E. Those who have even heard of them will know that the conflict was between Sparta and Athens. Thucydides was an Athenian general who participated in some rather modest way.

“Destined for War” talks about something called “Thucydides Trap.” This means the phenomenon that arises when a rising power begins to challenge an established power. In the case of Sparta and Athens, Athens was the rising power in the Fifth Century, B.C.E.

Reid K. Beveridge

Prof. Allison points out that there have been 16 such situations beginning with Sparta and Athens. Twelve of them have resulted in war. Prof. Allison points particularly to World War I as the perfect example of Thucydides Trap.

He says, for example, that none of the principal European rulers in 1914 could have wished for the outcome of that war. For one thing, all but one of the crowned monarchs of 1914 were either no longer kings/emperors, or were dead. And further, that Thucydides Trap can be invoked unintentionally by some otherwise minor occurrence. In the case of World War I, this was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo by a Serbian terrorist.

To finish that point, of the crowned heads, only the king of England remained in power in 1918. The czar of Russia was dead. The Habsburg dynasty was gone in Austria. The Kaiser of Germany had abdicated. Serbia was no more. The Ottoman Turkish Empire was no more, reduced to Turkey only, which was transitioning to a democratic form. France, of course, was a democracy.

The Thucydides application here was the rise of Germany since its unification under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck from 1870 to 1890. Before that, Germany had been a collection of principalities, nominally under the kingship of the King of Prussia. Bismarck’s contribution was to neuter the various princes/electors, taking the “voluntary” part out of the arrangement.

The established powers of the 1914 era were Great Britain, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and France. The Ottoman Empire was called the “sick man of Europe” for losing all those wars with Russia. The rising power was Germany and to a minor extent, Serbia.

Today, the established power is the United States. The rising power is China. While China has in its 3,000-year history never been expansionist per se, nonetheless, China wants to be recognized in East Asia as the dominant power. It does not want the United States to continue with its predominant influence over Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and Australia. We can see the trend of this in the current Philippine president’s dismissing of U.S. interests and his courting of China.

We can further see the rise of China in its construction of air force bases on previously non-existent islands in the South China Sea — and its insistence that the U.S. Navy not patrol in those regions. It is, the Chinese would point out, called the South China Sea, not named after something else.

Prof. Allison says the United States avoiding war with China in the relatively near future will be tricky. He points out that the U.S. and Chinese interests in North Korea are far from the same. They are the same only in wishing to avoid having the North Koreans launch a nuclear weapon at the United States or Japan. China doesn’t want that, either.

But he notes that like the assassination in Sarajevo, war could be triggered by something on the Korean Peninsula. Or something in the South China Sea. Or, for example, would the United States defend Taiwan if Beijing came after the island, which nearly all agree is part of China?

Who would have thought a non-entity by the name of Gavrilo Princip could have triggered Thucydides Trap in 1914?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reid K. Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.

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