USA vs China: Falling into Thucydides Trap
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - June 2, 2019 - 12:00am

According to  American and Chinese officials, there is a “Trade War” going on; and, the main weapons are tariffs. However, to geopolitical experts and historians, the situation has gone beyond trade wars and is already the beginning of a Cold War. Some have even gone further and said that the historical lessons of the Thucydides Trap should lead us to conclude that war between the United States and China is inevitable even though both nations may be trying their best to avoid war.

The term “Thucydides Trap” was popularized by Professor Graham Allison in his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap? This phrase has been used to explain the likelihood of conflict between a rising power and a currently dominant power. In his writings, the historian of Ancient Greece has explained  the cause of the Peloponnesian War as: “It was the rise of Sparta  and the fear that this inspired in Athens, the strongest city state prior to the war, that made conflict inevitable.” This was an ancient Greek War fought from 431 to 404 BC between the Delian League led by Athens and the Peloponnesian War led by Sparta. Allison has identified 16 historical cases of the Thucydides Trap and 12 have ended in war. Two ended without war when the declining power peacefully accepted the ascendancy of the rising power.

Even Chinese President Xi Jinping has been known to use this term when he  said: “ We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides Trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers.” Leon Whyte has a more fascinating insight into the Thucydides Trap: “In  Thucydides history, human emotions made conflict inevitable, and at several points where peace was possible, emotion propelled it forward.” He tells the story of how the Peloponnesian  War really began. At the beginning Archidamus, the Spartan king urged his people to decide calmly because many lives and fortunes and cities were at stake. But a Spartan leader, Stheneaidas, said: “Vote, therefore, Spartans for war, as the honor of Sparta demands it.” The same emotions were true on the Athenian side.

Whyte writes: “If the United States and China fight a war, it will occur because of the same fear and honor that led the Spartans to start the Peloponnesian War or the Athenians to continue. “A prominent Chinese scholar Ye Zicheng expressed this sense of honor: “If China does not become a world power, the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will be incomplete. Only when it becomes a world power can we say that the total rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has been achieved.”

This sense of honor and pride is seen in the strong stand that Chinese officials are taking against American trade threats. It is also witnessed in the pride of China’s citizens that China will inevitably overtake the United States as an economic and military power. I have even heard some of my Chinoy friends speak with pride that China has overtaken the United States in technology and soon militarily. This is the rhetoric that will lead to the Thucydides Trap – the inevitability of war between China and America.

Professor Nouriel Roubini writes: “Despite the mutual awareness of the Thucydides Trap – China and the US seem to be falling into it anyway. Though a hot war between the world’s two major world powers still  seems far-fetched, a cold war is becoming more likely.”

The US blames China for the current tensions. Since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, China has reaped the benefits of the global trading and investment systems, while failing to meet its obligations and free riding on its rules. According to the US, China has gained an unfair advantage through intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers, subsidies for domestic firms, and other instruments of state capitalism. At the same time, its government is becoming increasingly authoritarian, transforming China into an Orwellian surveillance state.

For their part, China suspects that the US’s real goal is to prevent them from rising any further or projecting legitimate power and influence abroad. In their view, it is only reasonable that the world’s second largest economy would seek to expand its presence on the world stage. And leaders would argue that their regime has improved the material welfare of 1.4 billion Chinese far more than the West’s gridlocked political system ever could.”

It is understood that some of Trump’s closest advisers have identified China as the foremost threat to the United States and only by crippling the Chinese economy will Beijing be prevented from becoming stronger – militarily – in the next 10-15 years. To them, this is not just a trade war; but, a new Cold War that will determine which country will remain a superpower in the years to come.

In the last Cold War, the world became two economic and political blocs. The Western bloc and the Communist bloc expected all countries to take sides. However, many countries tried to stay neutral and maintain economic ties with both. Professor Roubini warns: “Yet in a future economy where China and the United States separately control access to critical technologies such as AI and 5G, the middle ground will likely become uninhabitable. Everyone will have to choose, and the world may well enter a long process of de-globalization.”

All the signs point to the beginning of a cold war. The United States is apparently trying to derail China’s development and contain its rise. China is increasingly projecting its power in Asia and the world; and, it is increasing its aggression in critical places like the South China where it is  becoming more defiant in the face of American objections. It is possible that a hot war, through a series of proxy wars could start. However, pride, honor and emotions could make China and the United States fall into the Thucydides Trap. The result  is that the whole world will suffer the fatal consequences.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on June 8, 15, 22 (1:30 pm-3pm; stand-alone sessions) and for the Adult Series, Writing with Humor and Satire with John Jack G. Wigley on June 29 at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration,  email

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