Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Thucydides Escape Valve

I don't assume that America and China will come to blows if China passes us by in power (or comes close to passing us by). Political science theories say this is so, but today's situation is different than the history that has led to these theories.

This could be worrisome on the face of it:

In recent years, especially since the beginning of this decade, the term “Thucydides trap” (between China as a rising power and U.S. as an established one) has gained increasing currency among policymakers, advisers, and China experts in Western research institutes and think tanks. The fear is that as its power increases, China will eventually choose to challenge or even overturn the existing international order that has contributed so much to its rapid rise, making a war between China and the U.S. likely.

The Thucydides Trap refers to the Greek writer Thucydides who described the long struggle between Athens and Sparta, writing that Sparta and Athens had to clash as Athens reacted to the prospect of losing their dominance (and let's gloss over whether a pro-Athenian attitude was just an attempt to clear Athens of any wrongdoing).

The author above writes that 3 factors make the trap less likely to lead to war.

One, the international system rejects war more than it did in the past when power transitions seemed to spark war. Well, perhaps it was written before Crimea.

Two, China benefits from the current system so why would they want to overturn it? I don't understand why this means China wouldn't want to fight for dominance within the system. Or why China might not believe they'd do better with their own.

Three, China says they won't go to war and want to rise peacefully. Sure. And China says that they expect to just be given stuff because of their rising power. What will China do when they don't get "stuff?" It seems that the peaceful rise factor ignores the fact that China simply expects to gain the rewards of winning wars by the mere fact of their peaceful rise.

I am not be comforted by these three explanations, but I do think there is a reason that a power shift is not a guarantee of war as Thucydides saw it. We speak of the Tyranny of Distance in regard to projecting our power across the vast Pacific. The reverse side of that coin is the Pressure Valve of Distance.

I recently had a post on power shifts between China and America:

One advantage we have in avoiding general war is that we lack a land frontier to have really tense face offs, the way we had with the Soviet Union at the Fulda Gap in West Germany during the Cold War. The vast Pacific gives us a bit of buffer to think clearly.

We are not in the position of Europe during its long history of warfare, whose powers had to figure shifting power when strong powers crowded each other on a small continent.

Unless China gains the ability to invade and occupy Japan, any Chinese gain such as South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, or Vietnam, will not give China a decisive advantage, but will give us notice that we are at war with China and allows us to wage a long war to disrupt China's trade and to seek an opportunity to counterattack around their periphery. The ability of China to really inflict a killing blow if they choose war doesn't seem terribly high to me, the way the USSR had the ability to inflict a major blow against NATO if the Red Army could advance to the Rhine River.

The reverse is true, too. We are not going to invade the Han heartland and try to occupy it.

So a power shift between America and China doesn't seem nearly as dangerous as it was in the past, which we define as Europe-based.

Sheer distance is a lubricant that reduces friction and decisions made in fear of dramatic loss. The power shift between America and Britain with the Atlantic between us did not result in a hammer and tongs, all-out war between us to decide who runs things.

And even a power shift will leave America with more free power to deploy in contrast to China which has lots of local power centers that China has to cope with.

Finally, I'm not so sure China will necessarily pass us by or, if they do, be able to hold their edge.

Let's hope the Thucydides Trap doesn't apply to the America-China power pairing. Because we could be at risk as China approaches our power to pass us by and then again as we regain our lost position to regain the top spot.

This isn't to say that we couldn't get involved in limited wars in support of allies. But distance will give both sides a bit of perspective before making this a total war to see who calls the shots.