Revisiting meaning of Thucydides Traps

J. Soedradjad Djiwandono
J. Soedradjad Djiwandono, Emeritus Professor of Economics, Faculty of Economics and Business, Universitas Indonesia, Jakarta, and Professor of International Economics, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

Jakarta, IO – Sometimes ago I wrote an op-ed piece entitled “The New Silk Road, a Potent Weapon of China”. I posted scenario with the rise of China, using the New Silk Road as a case study, one that could arouse American concern as a serious competitor in the superpower race, as interpreted by Professor Graham Allyson’s reference to the “Thucydides Trap”, with a question of whether a war might be brewing between the superpower (the USA) and the People’s Republic of China, a new emerging superpower. As detailed in Professor Allyson’s book, out of 12 historical “traps” he referenced, 8 ended in war. In fact, no one was eager to see war declared between Sparta and Athens; nevertheless, it was what became known as the “Peloponnesian War” in ancient Greece (431 to 405 BCE) that inspired the notion to a Greek General and Historian of the dilemma, a “Thucydides Trap.” 

Merely based on common sense, I daresay the rise of China with its New Silk Road (also known as “Belt and Road Initiative” or BRI) would be less likely to trigger any reaction from the United States of America, the dominant superpower, to act so foolishly in starting a war that for sure would only result in great loss for both – and the rest of the world, as well. In other words, this is only a mental exercise, one that may be harmless, like playing a war game on a computer. However, it might also be a worthwhile effort, since the USA I am visualising is the current one, under President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and certainly not under his predecessor. I would not dare make the same argument otherwise. 

The significance of the rise of the People’s Republic of China 

In my take, the rise of China is basically welcomed by the US, and not necessarily considered as a direct competitor. For sure, economically the rise of the Chinese economy benefits the world, including the US, so why should that be bad for Americans? 

There is no question that the USA has been and will always be concerned about China’s ambition to make the unity with Taiwan a reality. But so far, this has seemed manageable. Even quiet recently, in response to Russian economics and armament pleas to support its invasion of Ukraine, China seemed to be adopting a very prudent stance. First, as predicted by making a denial, echoing Russia. Second, in a meeting that reported to last close to seven hours in Rome between the US Chief National Security Adviser to President Biden, Jake Sullivan and his China counterpart, no statement was made except for the US that said to follow closely, and reminding them of the potential consequences of what China might try. This means that even with a worsening international situation, with the Russian incursion into Ukraine, there are no signs of worsening relations between the US, as the dominant superpower, and China, as the emerging one. So, I still conclude it will not result in hostilities. 

But my argument is based more on my belief that the US under President Biden genuinely wants to act like a democratic state, one upholding democratic values and trying to spread democracy worldwide. This effort has been the strength that pulls new independent countries emerging from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, following the advent of Gorbachev’s Perestroika. This also what unites the US allies, including NATO, as demonstrated in their coordinated economic sanctions to Russia and Belarus, and their disciplined policy to avoid escalation into WW III, as for example in their united response to Ukraine President Zelensky’s plea for them to declare Ukraine a “no-fly zone.” Even with the economic sanctions, condemned as an act of “economic war” by Russia, a no-fly zone would certainly be considered as a declaration of war by the US and its allies, in other words, WW III. 

Final note 

With these simple arguments, I think it is safe to say that the rise of China will not result in a war, as illustrated historically by the Thucydides trap. 

In another op-ed, I reminded readers how world wars sometimes start with a silly little incident that seems impossible to escalate into a major conflict; we learned how this was a mistake in WW I, and even WW II. Let us hope that all democratic countries will not make another mistake by letting an autocrat lead their respective countries. One President Trump is enough. Even better if the purported autocrat turns into benevolent dictator. I know this is too much to ask, but in a crazy world like that of today I hope you will not be annoyed at me for writing my dream in an oped like this.