Interview: "Thucydides' trap" dangerous theory concerning China-U.S. relations: scholar

by Xinhua Writer Liu Si

BEIJING, June 20 (Xinhua) -- "Thucydides' trap," a phrase explaining the likelihood of conflicts between a rising and a currently dominant one, is often used regarding China-U.S. relations, but a renowned scholar remains skeptical and has pointed out that it is a dangerous theory.

The Thucydides' trap, popularized by Professor Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School, refers to the theory that a rising power causes fear in an established power which escalates toward conflicts or wars.

"This (Thucydides' trap) can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's dangerous because you start thinking that somehow this part of the concept has some analytical value," Amitav Acharya, a notable Indian-born Canadian scholar on international relations and writer of the popular book "The End of American World Order," told Xinhua in a recent interview.

The idea of Thucydides' trap was "very simplistic and a little sensationalistic," Acharya said, explaining that a trap basically means no other choices or an inevitable conflict.

"That means neither the U.S. nor China can do much," he said. However, he believed even if there is tension, suspicion or lack of trust in U.S.-China relations, "there's also a certain amount of understanding."

Referring to dialogues established during the leaders' summit between China and the United Statesin April as "a good step," he said that the two countries would keep talking and try to find a way for the rest of the world.

"The two countries are so closely interdependent," he said, further eleborating that China-U.S. trade now has reached half a trillion U.S.dollars, with more than 1.5-trillion-dollar Chinese investment in U.S. treasury bills.

"When you think about a scale like this, where you come and try to have dialogue and manage this, you don't go to war," said the scholar.

Acharya's view was echoed by quite a number of scholars who questioned the hypothesis of the "Thucydides' trap."

For example, Arthur Waldron, Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania, argued persuasively that "there is no Thucydides Trap."

The "Thucydides' trap" analogy was used worldwide in 1914. Acharya pointed out that Allison was "using some of these historical analogies and what happened only in the early 20th century as a way of building his argument, making his case for U.S.-China relations today."

There were theories that make similar arguments such as "the security dilemma" or "power transition theory" which predicts a rising power and a status-quo one might get into conflict, said Acharya.

He argued that the world was so different today, thus "a term like the Thucydides' trap is a false analogy and kind of misuse of history."

One important reason behind the changes, as Acharya emphasized, has to do with nuclear weapons. "Nuclear weapons make countries, especially large powers, very careful about getting into a war. That's a huge factor," he said.

A second reason is that the culture for war has changed. In the 19th and early 20th century, war was still considered as an acceptable and useful means to solve problems. "Today nobody thinks like that. Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese falls into that category," he said.

In addtion, Acharya said in 1914 there were very few institutions in Europe or the world to influence geopolitical rivalry. For instance, only one institution called the Concert of Powers existed in Europe at that time. Today, "there are many international institutions that provide avenues for dialogue and conversation," he said.

Economic interdependence is another reason that makes the world very different from the past. Achaya said China and the United States have so much common interest in each other's economic stability and "that's not what the Thucydides' trap is about."

Acharya warned that academics had a very terrible record of making predictions. "People need to look at the limitations of this concept analytically and also bear in mind of the dangers of using metaphors like this," he said.

[ Editor: Xueying ]
 

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