Cooperation based on Belt and Road can overcome risk of war between China, US

By Wenshan Jia Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/3 18:53:40

The Thucydides Trap Research Project led by Dr. Graham Allison, professor and director of the Belfer Center at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, has been making headlines in major national and international news media since Allison made it public in the Financial Times in 2012, and particularly since the recent release of his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides' Trap? (2017) accompanied by a series of his op-eds and a flurry of his ongoing national book talk tours.  Ancient Greek historian Thucydides's famous statement, "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable," Allison has selected and analyzed 16 cases of rising powers mostly in Western history challenging the established powers. He finds that 12 out of the 16 cases resulted in war. Based on his study of these cases, he predicts that the competition between the US, an established superpower, and China, a global rising power, will, in most likelihood, result in war if effective preventive measures are not taken by both sides.

Allison's Thucydides Trap theory appears to have been legitimizing and guiding US military action against a globally rising China to maintain the American leadership in the Asia-Pacific Region and consequentially global supremacy. Obviously, not enough has been done in the study and consequentially not enough has been learned from the study by the US government and military to minimize and prevent a war with China.  Indeed, despite Allison's verbal wrap for peace, his study is better understood both as a strategic effort to draw a road map ahead for the US and its allies and as an effort to mobilize the American public to support the US plan to enter into war with China.  Almost simultaneous to the development of the theory has been the execution of Obama's pivot to Asia which emphasizes military first policy. "The four largest defense construction projects since the Cold War are all located in Asia.

Specifically, there are three major problems as follows in Allison's theory:

First, Western biases. Most of Allison's earlier cases of the so-called Thucydides Trap are rooted in the European context. It should not be assumed that such cases can be transferred or assumed a historical dynamic and structure similar to that of the West has been in existence in a different geographical, historical, and cultural context such as Asia or China. Allison admitted at a recent public talk which I attended that he is no China studies scholar and he had only consulted Henry Kissinger and Lee Kwan Yew on US-China relations. David Kang, on the other hand, discovers that there were far fewer wars in East Asia in contrast to Europe under the Chinese tribute system which values peace and harmony despite hierarchy during the period of 500 years before the global ascent of European colonialism. That explains why his theory is viewed to be "too simplistic" by Tristan Kenderdine and having caught only "half of the meaning of the History of Peloponnesian War. The true trap is countries going into, and continuing, war clouded by passions like fear, hubris and honor" which make conflicts inevitable," according to Leon Whyte.

Second, inaccuracies and falsehood. Upon my own analysis, while 12 of the 16 cases are reported to have resulted in war which constitutes a 75 percent probability of war, only three out of the seven cases of the entire 20th century resulted in war, an approximately 43 percent probability of war. Arthur Waldron points out in his review of Allison's theory that not only there was no Thucydides trap in the literature on Greek history, but also there has been no and will never be any Thucydides trap between the old rising powers and established powers and between the current established power and the current rising power such as the US and China. He points out that Allison has misread the literature, exaggerated, and even fabricated the case. Waldron writes: "Allison's argument draws on one sentence of Thucydides' text: 'What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian Power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.' This lapidary summing up of an entire argument is justly celebrated. It introduced to historiography the idea that wars may have 'deep causes,' that resident powers are tragically fated to attack rising powers. It is brilliant and important, no question, but is it correct?" He asked rhetorically. Waldron continued: "The whole Thucydides Trap -- not clear who coined this false phrase -- does not exist, even in its prime example." Waldron concludes: "Perhaps not war, but cultural and political synergy, is, what is, in fact, 'destined.'" Robert Kaplan also cast his doubt about Allison's theory that the US and China are destined for war. He opines that "China's internal logic for growth and development may have the capacity and determination to avoid a war with a dominant state such as the US who may need to refrain from provoking a war with China to sustain itself. Jing Huang also resonates with Kaplan's view in his book review entitled, "US and China can escape the Thucydides Trap."

Third, ulterior motive. Why has Allison been feverishly promoting this theory despite the fact it has many holes as evidenced above? My studied answer is that his theory appears to be an update and crystallization of Samuel Huntington's theory of clash of civilizations. It is intended to offer a vision, a road map, a policy tool box, and a strategy for the US to stop China's global rise and to maintain the global supremacy of the US.  Ash Carter, a former colleague of Allison's, appears to have been a supporter of Allison's "Thucydides Trap" study. It is very likely that Carter used this theory as an instrument to legitimize and buttress his hawkish and indeed war-provoking gestures of sending and commanding US naval patrols to the South China Sea for the stated purpose of "freedom of navigation" or FON during his short-lived tenure.

The goal of Allison's study appears to be that even if there is no such thing as Thucydides trap, Allison still "fabricated" it and Carter acted it out in the open so as to raise the alertness of the American public of the impending threat from China and prepare for a war with China. As both Carter and Allison previously worked for the US Department of Defense, the heavy publicity about this theory has been in fact trying to manufacture consent among the American public and US international allies. The theory has been publicized so effectively so that even Chinese President Xi Jinping was informed of it and even provided a response to it when he delivered his speech in Seattle, Washington, on September 25, 2015 during his state visit to the US. Xi said:  "There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves." Xi's view was later echoed and affirmed by Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense of the Trump Administration when he spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 3, 2017.

Despite Xi's clear and well-reasoned response reinforced by Jim Mattis' remarks, Allison did not stop propagating it since Donald Trump became president. He promoted his theory to President Trump's top aides such as Steve Bannon, Matt Pollinger, James Mattis and H. R. McMaster as well as the United States Congress followed by his ongoing publicity campaign to the masses. The timing of Allison's theory is also interesting considering that he publicized his theory for the first time six months after Xi, the then vice-president of China, proposed his new type of major power relationship to the US to consider during his visit to Washington DC. The purpose of Xi's theory was to structure the US-China relations so that the two countries would respect each other, would not challenge each other's core interests, and interact above and beyond ideological biases. Perhaps Allison's theory was originally intended as a basis for an official framework of a then-anticipated Hillary Clinton-led White House to structure the next stage of the US-China relations. With the Trump-Xi meeting at Mar-a-Lago, Florida in April 2017, dialogue and negotiation has become the official solution to the conflicts between the US and China. Allison's grand strategy for war with China has become unofficial or private. However, precisely because of this, he has Berndtson executing a hard-selling campaign on his theory in a book form, hoping that either President Trump will eventually accept it or the next US President will embrace it.  Interestingly enough, Allison was even reportedly promoting his book in the Trump White House and left two copies of his book while the US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue was being held just a few days ago. Allison is really good at attracting spotlight at the right place and right time!

How should peace be maintained and war prevented between the US and China?  Andrew Bacevich argues for the US to give up universalism and exceptionalism (2009).  While this takes time and can only occur incrementally, the US at least can start with something specific and concrete. One year after Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed his new type of major power relations to the US, Xi created the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). To me, BRI, while being a platform for a win-win economic-cultural strategy of global interconnectivity and enhancement of human civilization, can be an effective tool to materialize Xi and Trump's shared vision for a peaceful and results-oriented relationship between the US and China. BRI, with a focus on infrastructure construction, could help the US with its plan to rebuild its infrastructure. I am glad that The US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, one of the four pillars of the US-China Dialogue Mechanism, has just been concluded with President Trump's agreement for the US to participate in BRI. BRI can and will overcome the Thucydides Trap and extend the peace between the US and China and indeed globally for another 50 years since Nixon's visit to China in 1972. In the process, both the US and China can and will be become great again! This is a much bigger, more constructive, and more futuristic narrative which will benefit more than Allison's Thucydides Trap theory, a narrow, pessimistic, and destructive narrative which would benefit the few -- the US military-industrial complex.

If there are people or forces who tirelessly cast war as inevitable among big established powers and big rising powers, watch out for the ulterior motives behind it. Lay it bare in the open, and dispel it with pro-peace actions. Let's start this with the removal of the trap for war planted in Allison's Thucydides Trap theory. What should Allison do next with his theory? I am pleased to read that he is conducting a study tour of China right now, which hopefully will deepen his knowledge about China and revise his theory.

The author is a PhD and professor of communication and global studies at the School of Communication, Chapman University, and a research fellow at the National Academy for Development and Strategy, Renmin University of China.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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