Are China and the U.S. Destined for War?

It's a story that students of history know by heart: A little over a century ago, a Serbian extremist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The incident lured Europe's great powers into a conflict and, before long, spiraled into the cataclysm we now know as World War One.

The lessons from the war's origins remain quite relevant in the present day, argues Harvard University historian Graham Allison.

"Under conditions of stress, events that are otherwise manageable or inconsequential can have [great] consequences," he said during a conversation with Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd on Wednesday at Asia Society in New York.

One such event may involve North Korea. A small, resource-poor nation with a modest population and moribund economy, North Korea's acceleration of its nuclear program has the potential to spark conflict between its principal ally, China, and its chief adversary, the United States. Allison does not believe that a war between the U.S. and China is inevitable. But a conflict between the two countries, he said, is "more likely than commonly recognized."

“There’s nobody I know in Washington who thinks war with China is going to happen," he added. "No one. There’s nobody I know in Beijing who wants war with the U.S. is going to happen. But does that mean the war isn’t going to happen? No.”

The reason why stems from an idea far older than the First World War — the "Thucydides Trap." Named after the ancient Greek historian who first documented it, the Thucydides Trap refers to when a rising power (in Thucydides' example, Athens) instills fears in an established power (Sparta). In his new book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides' Trap?, Allison argues that the concept is the clearest lens through which to view contemporary Sino-American relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the U.S. without rival as a global power, but in the ensuing 25 years, the rapid expansion of China's economic and military power has turned the Asian country into Washington's chief competitor for global influence. And in recent years, tensions have grown in regions — such as the South and East China Seas — where Chinese and American interests collide.

Not every observer agrees that the current relationship between the U.S. and China is analogous to that of Athens and Sparta. Multilateral institutions established in the second half of the 20th century have integrated security and economic relationships around the world to a degree that had not existed. Indeed, China and the United States enjoy mutually dependent economic ties and have collaborated on numerous foreign policy issues, ranging from terrorism to climate change. In April, U.S. President Donald Trump invited Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, to Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, for a summit meeting that seemed to result in warm ties between the two leaders.

But Allison believes that the fundamentally different interests of China and the United States may make conflict difficult to avoid — whatever the two countries wish.

“Only those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it,” he said.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Senior Content Manager at Asia Society. Previously, he worked as an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he helped launch and then oversee the China Channel.