Appearing in Australian Financial Review, Defence feature, 29 November 2017
Lessons from ancient Athens
A disastrous war between the US and China in the decades ahead is more likely than many commentators believe if the lessons of history are a guide, according to one of the key experts in the field. Professor Graham Allison, a senior Harvard academic who has advised a series of administrations, argues in his new book Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? that the root cause of war is often when a rising power determined to assert itself confronts an established power determined to maintain its position.
Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, a conflict that engulfed his home city-state of Athens in the fifth century BC. Athens was a rising power, and the military state of Sparta sought to keep the status quo. Neither state wanted war but their leaders nevertheless drifted into it, pushed by their own rhetoric and fear of the other. Sparta eventually won but the impact of the war was devastating for both sides.
Professor Allison sees this pattern occurring again and again, from the war between France and the Hapsburg Empire in the sixteenth century to both world wars in the twentieth century. In his book he looks at sixteen cases, of which twelve resulted in large-scale warfare.
“We now see an unstoppable China approaching an immovable America, with similar structural stresses,” says Professor Allison. “And both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump promise to make their countries ‘great again’.”
China’s aim, according to Professor Allison, is to have its cultural superiority recognised in Asia, as a part of its dominance of the region, and to become the critical player in global politics and the global economy.
He puts forward a range of scenarios which could lead to the two countries into conflict. He notes that the Peloponnesian War began over Megara, a small state that was an ally of Sparta. Sparta did not much like Megara but after Athens imposed economic sanctions Sparta felt obliged to support it, as its collapse would give Athens an important advantage. Athens escalated, Sparta escalated, and war became inevitable.
The parallel with North Korea is hard to avoid but Allison sees plenty of other paths to disaster. The South China Sea could easily become a flashpoint if the ships or planes of one side came too close to the other, provoking an exchange of fire. Another possibility is a declaration of independence by Taiwan, leading to threats from China which the US would feel obliged to counter. Another scenario, one which was the subject of a wargame exercise conducted by the RAND Corporation, begins with a group of Japanese ultranationalists seeking to occupy the disputed island of Kuba Jima. China sends naval vessels to stop them, and Japan supports its citizens, and China then increases its forces, and Japan requests American help.
Wars have started with less obvious triggers, such as the assassination that sparked World War One. But Professor Allison suggests that a war between China and the US might not escalate into the all-out use of nuclear weapons. It could be more like a series of skirmishes with conventional weapons, although cyber-warfare might also play a role. However, severing the trade linkages would raise huge problems for both countries (but more for China, Professor Allison believes) as well as for the global economy.
The competition between the two countries is exacerbated by a deep lack of understanding. In particular, the US sees relations between states as based on rules and rights, backed up and interpreted by multi-national judicial bodies. China, says Professor Allison, says that it did not have a role in creating the rules-based system, and that the system appears designed to entrench the existing order.
War between China and the US is certainly possible, notes Professor Allison, but that does not mean it is inevitable. He finds common threads in the cases of competition that did not result in war, such as between rising America and established Britain in the early twentieth century or the rise of Germany, after unification, as the dominant power in Europe. He believes that the key issues are for each player to clearly distinguish between its wants and its needs, to strategically think of the long term, and to understand the connections between domestic pressures and international moves.
He believes that both China and the US are taking these steps, if somewhat haltingly. They are also making an effort to understand each other.
“Some 300,000 of China’s best and brightest are studying in the US,” says Professor Allison. “The current President of China sent his only child not to Tsinghua University but to Harvard, where she graduated in 2014. Finding ways in which the emerging generation of these ‘internationalists’ understanding of the world can be translated into new forms of cooperation remains among the most intriguing opportunities.”