The Thucydides Trap
My friend, Euston
Quah, asked me to attend an important webinar. Winsemius Chair of Nanyang Technological University and fellow of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Euston is a master
of understatement, and his words therefore underscored the necessity of my
The guest speaker was
Prof. Graham Allison of Harvard University, author of the
book Destined for War and who coined the phrase "The Thucydides Trap," which refers to the
inevitability of war. Thucydides, known as the "father of scientific
history," wrote about the Peloponnesian War, an almost 30-year conflict
between Sparta and Athens, which left the two cities in utter ruin.
What was the casus
belli, or the reason for such a seemingly interminable war? Thucydides
concluded: "It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in
Sparta, that made war inevitable." In a study conducted by Prof. Allison
and his team, they found that "in 12 out of 16 past cases in which a
rising power had confronted a ruling power, the result was bloodshed."
Since the lecture was
attended by world-class economists, one of whom was Dr. Andrew Michael Spence, a Nobel Laureate, it was rich in graphs and
statistics showing the relative economic position of China vis-à-vis the United
States of America. The graphs showed that China is now leading in the field of
artificial intelligence applications; it is 10 years ahead of the US in 5G.
China is now leading the quantum communications race; quantum communication
protects information channels against interception through quantum
cryptography. China now sells more electronic vehicles; it has more STEM
(science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates and PhDs, a matter
that certifies future dominance in this technology-driven world.
So, is war really
inevitable when a hegemon is threatened by a rival? Will China and the United States be ensnared by
the same trap? Perhaps, before the war in Ukraine, it may be said that armed
hostility is unavoidable. The prospect of an inevitable war now between China
and the hegemon of the Western world has been shattered by a new kind of weapon
— the destructive sanctions unleashed by the Western powers.
China has become a
trading partner of practically all the major nations in this highly integrated
world. The label "Made in China" has become ubiquitous. According to
Prof. Allison, in 2020, China produced 250 million computers, 25 million
automobiles and 1.5 billion smartphones, earning for China the moniker of being
the "world's workshop." Because it supplies consumer goods and not
oil and gas unlike Russia, which earns $1 billion per day because of its oil
and gas sales, it is more vulnerable to sanctions.
China is supposed to
be a communist State where all the instruments of production should be owned by
the State and whatever profits it earns should be distributed to the people.
But communism in China has taken a vastly different turn. In my younger days, I
took a train from the then British Crown Colony of Hong Kong to travel China's
interior where I saw structures being built even in the dead of night. It was
China the sleeping giant awakening and unleashing a then unknown but eclectic
form of capitalism.
Henry Kissinger once
wrote that a hegemon or a dominant force will not seek war. I agree with
Kissinger because war will serve no purpose but to destroy the status of the
China exports what it
produces and manufactures. Exports are its lifeblood. If the West and its
allies suddenly stop buying Chinese goods, China's wealth will wither and soon
enemies from all sides will take advantage of its weakness. China is virtually
surrounded by potential enemies. South of China are the nations surrounding the
South China Sea which resent China's territorial claim to its waters. To the
east is Taiwan and China's historic enemy, Japan. To the west of China lies
Xinjiang province that has 12 million Uyghurs who are predominantly Muslim and
which China has suppressed. To the north are the Mongolians, whose ancestors
were the reason China built the Great Wall.
Surely, China has
been watching and has divined what sanctions could do to its economy. It is
observing from a distance how Russia is being de-globalized. There is no reason
why China should go to war. Xi Jinping himself said: "There is no such
thing as the so-called 'Thucydides Trap' in the world. But should major
countries time and again make the mistake of strategic miscalculation, they
might create such traps for themselves."
Chinese is enjoying his much-wished-for prosperity. The success which he always
prays for when he confronts his gods. He has no use for armed conflict. He is
thoroughly enjoying himself. He never had it so good. He cannot hope for better
times than these.