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1 May 2018

Out of the Box - Thucydides’s Trap?  
Prof Tony Chan     Published in The Standard

Recently, I attended a luncheon forum organized by the Asia Society, with the main speaker Graham Allison, who gave a presentation based on his 2017 book titled “Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’s trap?” His conclusion is a scary scenario: the current trade war between the US and China will likely get worse, before it gets even worse, and it may lead to real war. The scary part is that while neither side want this to happen, lessons from history point to a “trap” from which neither party can escape. I thought when I wrote “Trade war, talent war” a few weeks ago, that was bad enough! But I certainly do not want to see a real war between the US and China.

Allison is no ordinary pundit. He is a political historian and a prolific writer. Besides the 2017 book, which quickly became a national best seller, he had authored other influential books over the last few decades. His first book, “Essence of decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (1971)” ranks among the all-time bestsellers with more than 450,000 copies in print. “Nuclear Terrorism: The ultimate preventable catastrophe” was selected by The NY Times as one of the “100 most notable books of 2004”. He has been a keen observation on China and he had written another bestseller in 2013 “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s insights on China, the US and the world”. The back cover of the 2017 book has supporting comments from Kissinger, former US VP Joe Biden, and retired General David Petraeus. He was a student of Henry Kissinger at Harvard and was the founding dean of Harvard’s JFK Government School. Thus, when someone with this credential speaks, I listen carefully. I don’t assume that it is sensationalism meant to sell books.

The “trap” is a reference to history, the rivalry between Spartus and Athens over two thousands years ago. One was the existing power while the other was the rising power. Their mistrust and misunderstanding of each other led to escalations which eventually led to war. Allison’s book discussed 16 historical cases, out of which 12 had led to war. Kissinger lamented that “I can only hope that the US-China relationship becomes the fifth case to resolve itself peacefully, rather that the thirteenth to result in war.” I can sense that he feels that the odds is against peace. Allison has no solutions to the situation. He only said that new imagination is needed. Business as usual will not be sufficient.

Several people in the audience challenge Allison’s pessimistic view. One said that China’s rise is different historically. It is a “peaceful rise” and thus may not lead to a unrecoverable conflict with the existing power that is the US. Another said that Allison’s view is “Western” and not completing understanding of China’s position (“there are two types of China experts: those who don’t know China, and those who don’t know that they don’t know China”!)

Allison also said that the general mood among the “political class” in Washington is overwhelmingly anti-China, which is a major shift from the Obama era. Even pro-China experts are now saying that their previous approach of integration and engagement was wrong and that tough actions are called for in dealing with China. China, on the other hand, has been saying that the US has been the one who started this latest crisis. Perhaps this is how the trap develops over history.

Niall Ferguson, another noted historian, commented on the back cover: “You can bet that China’s leaders will read Allison’s warnings about Thucydides’s Trap. I only wish I could be as sure about America’s leaders.” Perhaps reading Allison’s book is one way to avoid the historical trap!


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