Apr 16, 2022

The Thucydides Trap

The Thucydides Trap

By Saul Hofileña Jr.


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 attendance.

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.

The final conflict

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 hegemon.

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.

Can there be a just war?

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."

The individual 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.

Read: Images of Ukraine war should humble hawks

(The Manila Times, April 16, 2022)