Could the U.S. and China end up in a terrible war that neither wants?

Professor Joshua Rovner, the Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics & National Security Policy, writes about the current potential for conflict between the U.S. and China.

By Joshua Rovner

Is a dangerous pattern emerging in U.S.-China relations? International relations scholar Graham Allison coined the term “Thucydides Trap” in 2012 to explain how a rising power can instill fear in an existing power, leading to hostility and mistrust that can escalate into war.

In his new book, Allison argues that China and the United States are falling into this trap, which owes its name to Greek historian Thucydides’s famous history of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which proved disastrous for both sides. Fast-forward a couple of millennia, and some observers worry that Washington and Beijing are heading toward the same fate.

But the focus on whether the United States and China will follow this path has obscured another insight from Thucydides’s classic work, “The Peloponnesian War” — how the geography of East Asia would shape what a U.S.–China war might look like, and just how dangerous and destructive such a war may be.

There is another way to look at rising powers

The Thucydides Trap we often see in debates about rising powers is actually a simple version of power transition theory, which dates back to the 1950s. The idea is that a war between great powers is more likely when a rising state seeks to topple the international pecking order. It is easy to see why this idea might be applicable to contemporary U.S.–China relations.

There are other ways to view the situation. Some scholars have argued that things may be more stable when two leading powers are at similar strength; others argue that the sources of war lie elsewhere. And the empirical record does not provide a lot of evidence that rising and dominant powers fight directly, or for the reasons that power transition theorists suggest. This leads some scholars to suggest that the power transition model is a poor guide to understanding U.S.–China relations.

None of this discussion means that U.S. and Chinese analysts should ignore Thucydides, although perhaps they should look for inspiration from other parts of his book.

The other Thucydides Trap isn’t pretty

Thucydides is best remembered for his short argument about the causes of war, but he said much more about its conduct. His insights are quite relevant for a hypothetical clash between the United States and China. This is especially the case in his commentary on the first few years of the Peloponnesian War, where he describes how Athens and Sparta stumbled into a protracted fight that neither side expected.

How they got there has to do with a very different kind of Thucydides trap. They wanted a quick victory, and they wanted to avoid their respective enemies’ comparative military advantages. Both opponents fell victim to delusions about bloodless victory without hard fighting. After their early efforts failed, they faced a terrible dilemma: capitulate or settle into a long and uncertain war.

And both sides faced the same basic challenge when the war began in 431 B.C. — how to avoid engaging on terms that favored the enemy. Sparta (like China today) was a dominant land power while Athens was the dominant naval power (like today’s United States). Sparta needed to figure out how to defeat Athens without challenging its navy directly. Meanwhile, Athens needed Sparta to concede without taking the risk of a pitched battle on land against the formidable Spartan army.

Neither side had a good solution — but they pursued operational fantasies about how to win without having to challenge the enemy’s main area of strength. Athens wanted to use its navy to assist land forces that would conduct raids on Sparta’s allies, while simultaneously encouraging a slave insurrection in the Spartan homeland. Sparta, for its part, thought that others would take on the Athenian navy on its behalf — and then it could focus instead on fighting on land.

Not much came out of these plans for the first few years. As long as Sparta and Athens were unwilling to challenge their counterparts directly, neither was able to hurt the enemy enough to force surrender. Neither side was willing to back down. And because they could both retreat to reliable sanctuaries — Sparta on land, Athens at sea — they didn’t need to seek terms.

A toxic blend of geography and politics conspired against the Greek great powers, and the result was an exhausting war that no one wanted. Geography enabled retreat, while political pressures encouraged continued fighting. Meanwhile the military balance held, with Sparta dominant on land and Athens controlling the water. What followed were years of costly but indecisive campaigns. Neither side was strong enough to win — nor weak enough to lose.

Geography would factor into any U.S.-China war

Here’s how this applies to U.S.-China relations today. As I explain in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, the United States and China risk slipping into this pattern.

War is far from inevitable, of course. But if it did break out, the United States and China — like Athens and Sparta — would each be able to retreat safely in the event of early wartime setbacks. When we read about potential flash points that could spark a confrontation, especially over Taiwan and disputed maritime claims, this geographic risk lurks in the background.

Wartime setbacks that send each side retreating to its safe haven are possible, perhaps even likely, given that both sides are placing their bets on elaborate plans to win quickly. In this scenario, China and the United States would each put a premium on interfering with the other’s communications and blinding its intelligence capabilities to inject confusion on the battlefield and make it hard to coordinate complex operations.

For the United States, the goal would be to seize the initiative, ensuring freedom of movement in the waters near the Chinese mainland, overcoming anti-access weapons, and buying time for superior reinforcements to arrive in the region. For China, it means forcing the United States to fight farther from the shore, which might prevent it from effectively defending its regional allies and partners.

These plans might sound good in theory, but both sides are investing in efforts to secure their communications against debilitating attacks. The normal fog and friction of war also work against operational plans that depend on precise attacks with little margin for error. Leaders might also become so concerned about nuclear escalation that they scale back their opening moves, further decreasing their effectiveness. For all these reasons, both sides may end up disappointed by the result of the first volley.

A quick political settlement might be the rational response in this case, but the fact that both sides were willing to take the gigantic risk of war suggests they will find it hard to stomach the prospect of backing down, especially if they haven’t suffered many casualties. This is a recipe for a long and grinding war.

This is the kind of Thucydides trap that looms over any U.S.–China conflict. Geography, politics and the maritime–land balance in East Asia create a situation likely to lead to prolonged fighting. The central task for strategists is figuring out how to escape it. If they cannot, the only alternative is avoiding war in the first place.

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