Thucydides’ Trap?: How Geopolitics Will Dictate the US-China Conflict

By Bledar Prifti

In his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, Professor Graham Allison argues that the United States of America (the USA) and China are destined for war. According to him, Thucydides’ Trap is a situation in which a rising power like China threatens the stability of the global system created by the hegemonic power, in our case the USA.

The main premise of this trap is that the rising power of China is to the USA what the rising power of Athens was to Sparta—a threat that led to the Peloponnesian War.

While the premise seems to be logical and true, its conclusion is not. Thucydides’ Trap, as presented by Allison, does not take into consideration a powerful variable–geography. Indeed including geography into the equation would totally change the meaning of the trap. Given the distribution of capabilities among states in the current international system, geography is probably the most powerful factor to dictate the strategic interests of a state and the strategies it pursues to achieve those interests. In a few words, geography is the primary factor to dictate the nature and fate of the US-China conflict.

A Prerequisite to Hegemony

In the history of world politics, ancient or modern, there has never been a kingdom or state that has quested for global dominance without first dominating its own region. Being a regional hegemonic power is a prerequisite to being a global hegemonic power. Alexander the Great envied the Persian Empire and global expansion but never pursued it without first dominating regional threats, such as Thebes, Athens, Thessaly, and the Thracian tribes. The Ottomans envied Europe and the world but never attacked it without first dominating regional forces in the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire.

In the modern history, in the nineteenth century, the USA followed the same process by first establishing itself as the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere, preventing great (European) powers of that time from interfering/intervening in the hemisphere. The USA then moved to expand and maintain its global influence by preventing the emergence of a competing hegemonic powers in other hemispheres.

The same was true with the aspiring hegemons of the twentieth century. For example, the Nazi Germany, while aiming at establishing global dominance, initially fought to dominate the entire Eurasia. The Soviet Union faced the same obstacle. Like the Nazi Germany, with its desire to become a global hegemonic power, the Soviet Union first fought to establish its hegemony in Eurasia. However, it failed in the challenge against the USA primarily because it, too, failed to first become a hegemonic power in its own region.

China, USA, and Geography: The Real Thucydides’ Trap

The same prerequisite will apply to any future aspiring hegemon, including China. China won’t be able to challenge the hegemonic power of the USA without first dominating its own region, which means dominating Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, and/or other regional states.

It is for this reason that Thucydides’ Trap, as argued by Professor Graham Allison, does not mean a potentially inevitable war between the USA and China. Instead, the trap prescribes that the first major conflicts will have to occur in Asia between China and its neighboring states. This is the real Thucydides’ Trap that China has fallen into as a result of its aspiration to become a global hegemon. If China ignores the prerequisite of dominating its region, it will fail just the same way as Nazi Germany during WWII and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It is also important to understand that the further China moves to challenge the hegemonic power of the USA, the more fearful and aggressive regional states will become toward China. It is in the nature of the international system and a dictate of geography that the aforementioned regional states will fear Chinese expansion more than the hegemonic power of the USA. It is for this very reason that these states will also be more predisposed to cooperate with the existing hegemon and engage in direct conflict with the aspiring one.

The Tale of The Rise of the Rest

In this context, the rise of China or the rise of the rest does not necessarily mean the decline of the USA or the making of China as the dominant power in the international system. Indeed, the rise of the rest means nothing to the distribution of state capabilities seen from the American perspective because rising regional powers (Surprisingly, there are at least two main rising powers per each region.) fear each other more than anything else, and as a result, they will nullify the rise of each other. For example, the rise of China and India/Russia/Japan, or of Germany and France/Britain/Russia, or of Iran and Saudi Arabia/Turkey, or of Brazil and Argentina is a zero-sum game because these states are regional powers that fear each other more than they fear the USA.

Even if there is a single powerful state emerging in a particular region, it will be almost certain that other regional states will come together to encounter the aspiring regional hegemon. Again, regional states fear each other more than they fear the hegemonic USA, and each regional state would cooperate with the USA at any time to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon. For this reason, the USA enjoys the privilege of simply acting as a distant balancer, helping regional states maintain the balance of power and prevent the rise of a hegemon.

A Grand Strategy to Balance China

Because the US is encircled mostly by water masses of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it enjoys the privilege of acting as an offshore balancer toward almost every other state, excluding Canada and Mexico. Offshore balancing is a grand strategy of an offshore state (i.e. the USA) whose ultimate objective is to maintain the balance of power across the world and prevent the emergence of a competing hegemon, in our case, China.

As an offshore balancer, the USA may balance the Chinese threat by following three potential strategies: buck-passing, coalition-building, and direct balancing. Very often, these strategies are pursued in a consecutive order, and in some cases in combination with one another.

The ideal strategy for the USA would be buck-passing. It is in the nature of every state to pass the burden of encountering a threat to other states. Buck-passing would help the USA maintain its power intact, contain or destroy the Chinese threat, and diminish the power of the other regional states that would carry the buck, preventing potential future threats.

Generally speaking, geography, more precisely geographic proximity and fragmentation, dictates the probability for buck-passing to occur. The closer to the threat a state is and the less fragmented the region is, the less likely for buck-passing to occur. For example, in the case of Sparta and Athens during the Peloponnesian War, their geographic proximity to one another and the absence of other states willing and able to carry the buck for Sparta did not allow buck-passing to occur. Sparta had no choice but to carry the burden of containing Athens by itself.

On the other hand, the farther from the threat a state is and the more fragmented the region is, the higher the probability for that state to pass the burden of containing the threat to other states. For example, the USA has a privileged position vis-a-vi China. It is thousands of miles away, divided by the Pacific Ocean, and can pass the burden of containing China to powerful regional states, such as India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and why not even Russia or North Korea.

In combination with buck-passing or in case it fails or is expected to fail, the USA may pursue the coalition-building strategy by passing the burden of confronting China not to a state but to a coalition of states, increasing the chances for success. For example, the US may help create a coalition between India and Russia, Japan and India, India, Japan, and South Korea, India, Russia, and Japan, or others. A grand coalition of regional states would make it possible for the USA to implement an Anaconda Plan, encircling and strangulating China until its capitulation.

In combination with the coalition-building strategy or in case it fails or is expected to fail, the USA may rely on direct balancing by using its own power and resources to contain China. This means that the USA will have to engage in a direct conflict with China. Thus, Thucydides’ Trap would come into play only if buck passing and coalition-building strategies fail the USA. The current distribution of capabilities among regional states does not allow China to prevail. India and Russia alone, two nuclear powers with a combined population of more than one billion people, would never allow a hegemonic China.

The USA-China Conflict and International Liberalism

If a direct conflict between the USA and China would have to occur, it would not be a military conflict, let alone a nuclear one. The USA would likely continue to operate based on “the logic of war”, but this time “in the grammar of commerce”. To be more precise, the USA would engage in economic warfare by protecting its economic entities while trying to damage those of the adversaries. Using “the logic of war in the grammar of commerce” means that the USA would have to shun away from pure international liberalism and embrace some forms of mercantilism, an economic theory that emphasizes economic protectionism and national interests.

There is some truth into this perspective. International liberalism is the global version of national capitalism. The latter, capitalism, leads to shifting inequalities among different regions within a state. But capitalism is also suicidal; it kills itself through monopolies. To protect capitalism, the government will have to intervene in order to prevent the creation of monopolies. It is for this reason that even those who are ardent supporters of laissez-faire economic have never complained about this government intervention in the free market system.

On the other side, the former, international liberalism, is inherently an anti-state economic theory as it prioritizes economic (not state) interests, supports free trade (not free state), and does not recognize state borders. If left unchecked, international liberalism would lead to shifting inequalities among states, and finally to the destruction of the state system and the emergence of a global system ruled by big corporations. This corporation rule may be temporary and a transitory phase to a new international system led by another hegemon.

Even though the current system is anti-state in nature, China has a vested interest in maintaining it. The current economic system has been providing China higher economic profits than the USA. While capitalism has been providing shifting inequalities among a state regions, international liberalism has been providing shifting inequalities among states, favoring China at the expense of the USA.

For this reason, the USA would rely on mercantilist policies to prevent shifting inequalities to its disadvantage and to preserve the current international system and its global dominance. These mercantilist policies would heavily target China in an attempt to damage its economic power, thus making its military power a liability instead of an asset.

Thus, to conclude, Thucydides’ Trap does not mean a potentially direct conflict between the USA and China. Instead, the trap prescribes a growing conflict between China and its regional states, alone or in coalitions. When dealing with China, the USA has a lot to learn from the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USA should NOT pursue strategies that would seek to test the effectiveness of the Chinese military power. Instead, it should pursue policies that would make it a liability, just like in the case of the Soviet Union.


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