Analysis: War with China? Trump, U.S. seek to avoid collision course

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AP TRUMP CHINA I CHN

BEIJING – Forget, for a moment, the prospect of war with nuclear-armed North Korea.

What about the prospects for war with nuclear-armed China?

As far-fetched as it may sound now, some foreign policy observers fear that the economic rise of China could lead to eventual military conflict with the United States because of a historical phenomenon known as the “Thucydides Trap.” 

“China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war — unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it,” writes Harvard political scientist Graham Allison in his book “Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” 

Thucydides is the ancient Greek historian famous for his work on the Peloponnesian War, which he attributed to growing international rivalry: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

Some see China playing a modern day Athens to America’s Sparta – and the possibility of a Thucydides Trap has been top of mind for many of President Trump’s officials. Former senior adviser Steve Bannon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster are all well-versed in Thucydides’s work – and Allison was even asked to speak on the topic with National Security Council staff in May. 

This week in Beijing, President Trump and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping stressed good relations, insisting they want to work together to address problems ranging from trade disputes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

“I look forward to many years of success and friendship, working together to solve not only our problems but world problems, and problems of great danger and security,” Trump told Xi during meetings Thursday in the Chinese capital.

Down the line, however, the U.S. and China could fall out on any number of issues, analysts said.

Trump himself said the current trade relationship is “a very unfair and one-sided one” that winds up stealing jobs from Americans. Yet there is no evidence that China, which protests some U.S. trade policies, will open up its markets in a substantial way or refrain from what Americans call cyber espionage and intellectual property theft from U.S. companies.

There is also the potential for a U.S.-Chinese clash over North Korean nukes.

While Trump is asking China and other countries to pressure North Korea into giving up nuclear weapons, he has not ruled out a military option. Even as it pledges to help Trump, China is an ally of Kim’s government – and could object or even intervene on its behalf if Trump opts for force.

Then there’s the nature of the modern Chinese government. 

Xi Jinping, who has consolidated his power over the Chinese government in ways not seen since the days of Chairman Mao, has proclaimed a “New Era” in which China “will take center stage in the world,” exerting its political, cultural, political and military influence.

The U.S. and its allies are keeping a wary eye on expansion of the Chinese military. Regional allies like Japan and South Korea have objected to activity in the South China Sea, where China has built man-made islands to be used as military bases.

In short, the world is seeing “a new and even more aggressive and quite overweening China reaching out all around the world – sometimes in ways that conflict with the interests of other countries,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations with the Asia Society.

The U.S.-China relationship is a complex one, and has to be managed very carefully – and the current American president prides himself on being a maverick.

Trump sang the praises of Xi and China during his visit to Beijing, but in the past he has criticized them over trade and a reluctance to tighten economic pressure on North Korea. During his presidential campaign, Trump said Chinese trade policies “rape our country.”

China, meanwhile, has criticized Trump for bellicose comments toward North Korea, saying things like describing Kim as “Little Rocket Man” are unhelpful. And China took issue with a phone call Trump made last year to the leader of Taiwan, saying it threatened the policy in which the U.S. recognizes only a single Chinese government; Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province.

“Trump’s style is erratic,” Allison in an interview. “This is a different president than we’ve been before; his style is not exactly what you would choose for complex international bargaining.”

When it comes to the possibility of war between the United States and China, some analysts are more sanguine.

Kori Schake, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former National Security Council official, said there is no “Thucydides Trap” because it is an outmoded concept. Things have changed too much since the Peloponnesian War, and countries are much less willing to go to all-out war in the nuclear age.

“I’m pretty sure Thucydides would consider nuclear weapons a revolution that stabilized great power conflict,” she said.

While war with China is “a realistic worry,” Schake said, there’s “a low probability” for it the near-term.

For one thing, it would wreck China’s long-term economic goals.

“The Chinese government’s legitimacy rests on increasing standards of living, and war with the U.S. would be disastrous for their economy,” she said. “Plus, they’d very likely lose.”

Allison, who organized the Thucydides Trap Project at Harvard, said there are a dozen examples of a rising power warring with a ruling power, from France and the Habsburgs in the 16th Century to the United States and Japan in the mid-20th Century.

There are also examples of rising and ruling powers avoiding war, at least two of them involving the United States.

Great Britain did not go to war with the United States as the latter rose to global dominance in the early 20th Century; the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the second half of the century never went hot.

The idea of military conflict between the United States and China shouldn’t be seen as strange, analysts said.

After all, it’s already happened – over Korea no less.

When U.S.-led forces pushed Soviet-supported North Korea to near China’s border in 1950, Mao Zedong responded by pouring thousands of troops into the war. The resulting stalemate led to today’s division over North and South Korea.

Before China entered the war with the U.S., “everyone in Beijing and Washington knew this was insane in 1950,” Allison said. “But it happened.”

 

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