A Thucydides' trap in the ties between the US and China has been debated by some scholars to be both unlikely and deterrable, owing to various factors.
In this argument, contemporary and systemic underlying factors that will contribute to the higher risks of uncontained risks and misperceptions of intentions by both sides have not been emphasized enough. In equating to historical terms of the narrative of the ties between Athens and Sparta, the new frontiers and calculations of dynamism in today’s context have been highly volatile and rapidly shifting, not being confined to singular interpretation of events and intention.
By banking on mere economic interdependence and the preventive factor that will tie up the options of war by both sides, preventing any change in the status quo of the unparalleled dominant status by Washington will be the overarching factors for the all-out affront in sustaining greater power gap by the West. While war and its causes are multi-faceted and highly variable in nature, the main proponent of the major seismic justification for an inevitable conflict between the two powers is not measured in both absolute and non-absolute terms alone. When push comes to shove, other considerations and baggage of guilt or inevitable fall-out will matter less if it comes to the end of ensuring survival, interest, and territorial integrity.
The main cause of potential conflict in current and potential prospects will be a culmination of different pressing factors that are played out in changing contextual and normative reality and perceptive dogmas. Interpretation of intentions and purposes have been quite clear in relative terms for now, with both powers understanding the potential impact and the intentions of making a clear red line in further managing conflict prevention and having greater impetus for confidence-building measures.
However, judgments and analytics will be open to riskier misperceptions and wrong considerations for policy options. In devising the right timeline for the first punch, both sides will risk missteps in correctly predicting the perceived strength or weakness to enable the first strike, barring any major upsets. In their arguments for state level and individual level as systemic factors in conflict prevention, this new dogma for bilateral ties has been encompassing, ever-changing, and structurally and systemically driven. No major policy changes are to be expected regardless of the partisan divide in Washington or other potential future candidates from CCP in succeeding President Xi.
The rise of one challenging power to the existing power structure that has been created by a historically dominant power creator has predominantly been met with a full-blown conflict, at least in statistical historical terms. The case of the US taking over the global dominance status from the British has been a different contextual scenario, with both being a largely open and democratic system and the inescapable reality for Britain of not being able to mount a serious challenge to this transition, having already been wounded by the wars and the end of colonialism.
The power parity fulcrum still pivots to the US for now, with relative unparalleled strength of the US in almost all power indicators. The US remains unchallenged, especially in its military might and the capacity to project and maintain power and execution of power globally, as well as the capability in compelling others to adhere to the current norms and order.
Some have argued that projection of the power match and parity will need to be at least in the percentage of 80, to incur stronger responses and measures taken by the incumbent power. Realities at hand and the changing architecture have made this obsolete, with growing understanding, realization, and awareness of both the masses and the policymakers in digesting the real impact and threat posed by greater escalation.
The compelling urgency and drive to prevent further challenges in the future to contain the threat of the rising power will give a new orientation to the threat perspective. The lessons in the past of failing to act fast enough and the resulting impact for now in which the countermeasures and the containing policies taken are deemed as too little too late will serve as the wake-up call for a better conception of preventive options to quell the threat at earlier levels. This also serves the purpose of Beijing in its orientation of Washington’s perceived declining power. It might be tempted to use Taiwan as the ultimate pretext and starting point of the inevitable clash, and the timeline remains crucial in the next decade both in using this short timeline to Beijing’s advantage and to prevent the long game advantage by Washington, seizing on this momentum which is perceived as Beijing’s to lose.
Realizing the inevitable fact that years and decades of the policy of strategic patience and support given to this relationship that enables Beijing to rise to where it is now, the Americans are faced with staggering realities that Beijing will not kow-tow to pressures to change. With the supporting hand and resources as well as capacity building to the Chinese with the hope that they will eventually embrace the transition to democracy now being effectively proven to be backfiring, the Americans will treat this new frontier and transition of a different game model as one that is both competitive and systemic rival in nature.
Needing to align with domestic demand and to revive the greatness of America, different postures of different state-levels or personality-levels as espoused by both authors will mark a lesser influencing tone.
Another parameter will be the starkly different alliance concept, capacity, and spectrum of importance today than in the different eras that have been presented. A growing number of global and regional players and regional groupings have been directly and indirectly affected and taking the full brunt of both Beijing's increasing assertiveness and bellicose actions and the impact of the countermeasures by the West.
Often, these players have been fearful of the still vague and uncertain impact of the alarming rise of China, and as to whether its intention is peaceful or otherwise. Although Beijing has repeatedly and officially stated that it has always championed the purpose of global cooperation and diplomacy, the maneuvers on the ground and the often-contradicting policies taken have sparked alarm and fears which have expectedly created new circles of an arms race and escalating security dilemma. The crucial flashpoint and saber rattling created will both serve as the impetus for regional players to increase defensive actions and to seek greater assurances from the West.
The peaceful transition and handover to a new global superpower by the British has also different hallmarks that are different from today’s setting. China remains relatively and structurally different from the expected norms, values, and principles that are championed by the West to be the standard moral frame for the global drive of influence in seeking legitimacy and respect in its dominance. China is seen to be not only lacking in this moral front but to provide a double-edged sword in the alternative global order that is espoused. Prospects will pivot more to the embrace of the transition to the morality and values of purpose and a sense of conviction in managing international affairs and in confronting regional and global challenges.
The US and the West have always aligned themselves to the moral high ground and in seeking to expand and maintain their dominance through the periphery of these convictions and purposes, expecting other players and the new demographic changes to adapt and adopt these universally respected norms. They have projected that the eventual transition to this specter of value-driven and principle-laden projection of norms and standards in the global order, with them serving as the positive influencing factor for the acceptance of this system will spur the declining reliance and dependence on the conventional measures of overreliance and engrained grip by Beijing, shifting away from mere priorities on trade volumes and market and supply of easy and cheap capital, to taking the moral high ground on upholding human rights and progress of civilizational resilience.
In this next chapter of the shifting norms and perception, the competition and conflict between two powers and the changing landscape of security involving other allies and players at the global level will continue to harbor greater risks of declining deterrence impact and current conflict prevention measures. Urgent crucial triggering flashpoints in the case of Taiwan and missteps in perceptions and purposes will remain as high risks, with the ultimate factor contributing to this great prospect of the Thucydides’ trap will remain the inevitable structural and systemic correlation of the fear felt by the incumbent power by a rising power with unknown intention and purpose. In this case, the intention has already been perceived and made clear by one’s interpretation and the subsequent results will remain mired in an inevitable clash, in which the severity, type, and depth of the conflict will depend on the tone of interpretation of intention and purpose.
Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than nine years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis. He is a regular contributor in providing Op-eds and analytical articles for both local and international media on various contemporary global and regional issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.