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Mainstream, VOL LV No 37 New Delhi September 2, 2017

US, China caught in Thucydides’ Trap

Saturday 2 September 2017, by Rajaram Panda

The Context

North Korea is threatening to emerge as the casus belli for an impending US-China conflict. President Donald Trump’s accusation that Beijing is not doing enough to rein in its prodigal younger cousin, North Korea, from its pursuance of nuclear and missile development programmes and the Chinese rejection of such an accusation could be the trigger. Trump’s pressure on China is precipitated by the launch of an inter-continental ballistic missile, second within a month in July, by North Korea with the potential to bring many cities of the US such as Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago within the missile’s range. For Pyongyang, its sole objective is to gain international legitimacy as a nuclear power with no real immediate intention to strike the US. It just wants to retain the right to strike in retaliation if threatened but is unlikely to strike first due to clear knowledge of its own destruction. Possession of nuclear weapon is seen as the ultimate deterrence for its survival. No compromise on that.

Such a policy of No-First Use, though not stated in clear terms but conjectured from an analytical perspective, could appear reassuring to those who advocate such a view; but the truism is the bellicose utterance to strike in a language that is always escalatory and this does not give any comfort to peace believers. One view is that is that if it wants to strike South Korea to seek unification on ideological terms, it does not really need nuclear weapons; the other weaponry in its possession should be adequate to put Seoul on fire. What it wants is to arm itself with nuclear weapons so that the US does not intervene in a conflict situation as an obligation to defend its ally and inflict pain on North Korea. The annual US-South Korea military drills are always seen in Pyongyang as a dress rehearsal for invasion, which is why preparedness remains a critical factor in Pyongyang’s strategic calculus.

This creates an uncomfortable situation for the US. Such a scenario does not assure the US about its security, which is why Trump expects Beijing to exercise its influence to prevail upon Pyongyang to abandon the nuclear and missile programme. Trump had criticised China for its trade policy and accused it of raping the US economy. He had vowed to correct the trade imbalance but soon shifted focus on the North Korean threat. Viewed from a larger perspective, neither the US nor China finds easy to escape from this Thucydides’ trap, a deadly pattern of structural stress that results in a rising power challenging a ruling one. Neither is willing to yield space. Things get complicated as a result.

What is Thucydides’ Trap?

Viewed from a larger perspective, when a new power rises, the existing sole power inevitably feels threatened. It does not necessarily mean that war between an established power and a rising power inevitably breaks out but as tensions build up, war could be a possibility. The twentyfirst century is witnessing a rising power, China, challenging an established power, the United States. Of course, there are other rising powers such as India as well but India is not a threatening power such as China. Therefore the comparison remains limited to the US and China when the battle for one-upmanship on global affairs is the issue of discussion in world capitals.

China’s rise coincides with the relative decline of the US and this phenomenon has attracted academic scrutiny. A recent prominent book, titled Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap, by Graham Allison highlights this unique phenomenon of two powers jostling for space in global affairs. Going by the Chinese maxim, two tigers cannot stay in the same mountain. Thucydides was a General and historian in Ancient Greece, and his History of the Peloponnesian War is regarded as a major historical work. Borje Ljunggren writes in Yale Global Online, Thucydides maintained that the 27-year war, from 431 to 403 BC, was a consequence of the anxiety that Athens’ rise caused in Sparta, an ascending power challenging an established war: it was “the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”. This sentence inspired the term “Thucydides’ trap”. Allison subsequently developed this study and in the process identified 16 major power rivalries during the last 500 years between a ruling and an emerging power, 12 of which led to war.

Allison argues that US-China relations at present are following a similar historical pattern where a war could look imminent. Such a premise rests on examples in history when the Peloponnesian War devastated ancient Greece, the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable. Allison notes that over the past 500 years, these conditions have occurred sixteen times. War broke out in twelve of them. Today with an unstoppable China and immovable America locking horns with two strong leaders, Trump and Xi Jinping, in either side of the spectrum spitting venom with the goal to make their countries “great again”, the seventeenth case looks grim. Unless China scales back its ambitions or Washington shows greater willingness to accommodate in the power structure of the region and the world, any of the issues such as trade differences, cyber attack, or accident at sea or North Korea could provide adequate fodder to escalate a potential conflict into a major war.

Allison’s main thesis is that both the US and China are “on a collision course for war—unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it”. That clashing powers have kept peace in the past should give some solace that both should be willing to take some painful steps to avoid a disaster. In Allison’s views, China wants to “regain its rightful place”, and the return to the prominence of a 5000-year civilisation is “not a problem to fix but a condition”. Allison’s concern is that “many Americans are still in denial about what China’s transformation from an agrarian backwater to ‘the biggest player in the history of the world’ means for the United States”.

Optimists cite two examples: Cold War and German reunification. Both were achieved without war. There is yet another argument which takes the position that the world since the end of the World War II in the past 70 years is a safer place with many countries in possession of the most destructive nuclear weapon than the world preceding World War II which was relatively unsafe when only one country was in possession of nuclear weapons, which had no hesitation to actually use it. This argument rejects the fear that North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and that the US need not be too paranoid about it and must not, therefore, engage in a blame-game with China.

While the German reunification was successfully achieved within the framework of the European Union, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the most dangerous confrontation in human history that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war, was defused by astute diplomacy. Those that take this position rest their argument that the current US-China dilemma should be examined from this perspective. The truism is that no single country can ever boast of winning a war if it breaks out; the idea of winning a war in a nuclear age would look insane but if ever it happens, one can witness the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) in full play with universal assured annihilation of mankind. Would Trump and Xi Jinping rejoice such a possibility?

Will Historical Cycle be Repeated? 

That possibility does not look easy. The situation in the 21st century world is quite different and looks messy. Any historical parallel could look inappropriate to analyse a potential war scenario today. And yet, historical lessons cannot be summarily dismissed either, which is why all windows must be kept open to explore a possible solution.

The present problem is: how to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile path. Trump feels that Beijing has the real leverage to influence North Korea. Beijing is unwilling to accept such a charge. Trump remains unconvinced. Earlier, the Beijing-brokered Six-Party Talks did not lead anywhere; it is virtually dead after Pyongyang walked out of it in 2008. Imposing economic sanctions in order to strangulate the North’s economy and isolate the country internationally have yielded little result.

Beijing has rejected Trump’s intentions to link North Korea’s nuclear programme to US-China trade. China’s reaction was in response to Trump’s tweet when he said America’s “foolish past leaders” had allowed China to make billions of dollars a year in trade and that he was disappointed in Beijing for not solving the problem. Beijing says these are two issues in completely different domains and unrelated and therefore should not be discussed together. Beijing has repeatedly said it is not its responsibility to resolve the North Korean issue, and that both Washington and Pyongyang need to take steps to calm tensions and address each other’s concerns. At the same time, Beijing has condemned unilateral sanctions imposed by the US on Chinese companies. Both failed to agree on major new steps to reduce the US trade deficit with China, casting doubts over Trump’s economic and security relations with Beijing.

Sustaining Dialogue

Both have toughened stances so much that there seems to be little scope of arriving at a mutually agreed solution. While Beijing continues to urge for talks, the US and its allies stress on the need to increase sanctions, both unilaterally and through the UN. Urging both the US and North Korea to ease tensions, China’s UN ambassador Liu Jieyi accused the “relevant countries” of violating the UN Security Council resolutions by heightening tensions and failing to resume negotiations. Earlier, the Chinese proposal for ‘freeze-for-freeze”—suspension of joint military drills by the US and South Korea and suspension of nuclear and missile programme—proved to be a non-starter, with neither agreeing to it. Some hawkish Senators, such as Lindsey Graham, are fuelling fire to the tensions by saying that Trump is ready to launch a devastating military strike if diplomacy fails to stop the nuclear missile threat. On the other hand, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calmed the situation by saying that the Trump Administration is not seeking a regime change and not opting for an accelerated reunification of the peninsula.

As Trump fumes, experts warn that an answer to the North Korean crisis would not come through China. They warn that the US cannot count on China as a reliable partner in defusing the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. With a view to enhance the country’s security preparedness, South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered the deployment of four more mobile launchers of the controversial Terminal High-Altitude Defence System (THAAD) anti- missile system. China has protested against the THAAD system, because it claims the missile shield’s radar allows it to peer deep into China. Moon’s decision to expand the THAAD shield marked a departure from his earlier stance of holding back on further deployment of the system until environmental reviews were conducted. South Korea already has two THAAD units deployed about 135 miles outside Seoul as per the agreement reached by Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Seoul also warned North Korea that it has a powerful new ballistic missile in its arsenal with precision-strike capability and features that allow it to be launched in seconds for lethal strikes.

For its part, Beijing is concerned about the repercussions of North Korea’s regime collapsing, including a civil war in an impoverished country with nuclear and chemical weapons. Beijing is also worried that a fall of the regime could result in millions of refugees across the border into China. While China may not like the status quo, the present one is a lot better than the alternative. Though the US provided North Korea about $ 1.3 billion in aid since 1995, this did not influence Pyongyang to changes its policy of beefing up deterrence capability.

Heightening of Threat Perception

In the meantime, though some American and South Korean experts have cast doubts about North Korea’s ICBM re-entry capability, Trump is not expected to loosen his preparedness to cope with the North Korean challenge. Though these experts concede that North Korea after decades of effort has a missile potentially capable of reaching the continental US, they hold the view that Pyongyang has yet to show that the ICBM can inflict serious damage once it gets there. Though doubts remain if North Korea can arm the missile with a nuclear warhead and protect it throughout the flight, there are enough indications that North Korea would conduct more tests to perfect its capability to hit the US target with a nuclear tipped missile. In such a circumstance, can Trump prevail over China to check North Korea’s nuclear menace? If Beijing remains obdurate and uncooperative, then the US and China would find themselves in a collision course. The world would then witness for the seventeenth time the ripering of conditions for a major conflagration. Of the two options, negotiation or declare war, the latter would have come to play. Can diplomacy still triumph and avert a potential war?

Alternatives/Escaping Thucydides’ Trap

What then are the alternatives to diffuse the US-China tensions over North Korea? The window of opportunity for dialogue should be kept open by all means. Both the US and China need to sit together and hold a serious security dialogue with Pyongyang and abandon the sanctions route as it has proved ineffective. No efforts should be spared to prevent the US and China from drifting towards a collision course on the North Korean issue.

President Trump needs to take cognisance that China has begun to realise that nuclear-armed North Korea has become a greater threat to its security and is looking for ways to cope with this challenge. China remains still the life-line for North Korea as many as 90 per cent of North Korea’s economy still flows through China, and therefore China can use this leverage to control North Korea. There is plenty of room for both Trump and Xi to work out a relationship that can be productive and together seek ways to address the North Korean issue.

Such optimism premised on China’s realisation of North Korea breaching the tolerance threshold could be negated by the argument that Xi has gone far ahead from Deng Xiaoping’s cautious maxim that the nation should “hide its power and bide its time” towards an increasingly assertive role, taking advantage of strategic opportunities and embarking on major initiatives, from where he could find difficult to retreat. Here, Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and rejecting the Paris climate agreement provide further opportunity to Xi to expand his design for the world. Given such stark differences in the two personalities and the resolve by both to make their respective countries great, can there still be room to work together on not only the North Korean issue but also on a host of other issues? This author would still hold on to the optimistic view that diplomacy would finally prevail and the drift to a collision course would be prevented, with both not falling into the Thucydides’ Trap.

Professor (Dr) Rajaram Panda is currently the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) India Chair Visiting Professor at the School of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University in Japan. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of either the ICCR or the Government of India. He can be contacted at e-mail: rajaram.panda[at]gmail.com

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