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The chances of a U.S.-China war

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Glued to a 2,400-year-old script, the U.S. and China seem to be on the same war-bound path that great powers have taken since Sparta fought upstart Athens.

The bottom line: The U.S. has slapped increasing tariffs on Beijing, cordoned off U.S. tech, and jailed a Chinese spy, while Beijing has continued to build its military footprint in the disputed South China Sea, demanded tech secrets from Western companies, and more.

Driving the news: A year ago, Harvard professor Graham Allison ignited a global debate by suggesting that the U.S. and China are not acting out, or even necessarily making their own decisions. Instead, he said that with their brinksmanship, they are succumbing to an inexorable, invisible force prodding them to almost inevitable war.

Allison calls this the "Thucydides Trap," after the Athenian general-historian. For five centuries, he wrote in "Destined for War" (now out in paperback), that war has almost always resulted when a rising nation challenges the existing great power.

  • Thus, he said, if history holds, the U.S. and China appeared headed toward war.
  • Over the weekend, I asked him for an update — specifically whether the danger of the two going to war seems to have risen.
  • "Yes," he responded. The chance of war is still less than 50%, but "is real — and much more likely than is generally recognized."
"If Thucydides were watching, he’d likely say all parties almost seem to be competing to show who can best exemplify the role as rising power, ruling power, and provocateur."
— Graham Allison

The big picture: The elevated U.S.-China tension is a primary thread running through this period of unusual geopolitical turbulence, in which a populist wave is challenging institutions and accords that make up the "liberal world order."

  • In an Oct. 4 speech, Vice President Mike Pence all but declared a new cold war, accusing China of interference in the midterms in a campaign for regime change — to elect "a different American president."
  • Cyber experts tell Axios that they have detected no Chinese meddling in the midterms so far.
  • But Pence's invoking of the claim underlines the administration's belief that China is the main strategic threat to the U.S.

Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has rejected Allison's theory:

  • In 2015, when Allison was first floating the idea in journals, Xi suggested that nations could blunder into war but that there is no force driving them that direction.
  • "There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world," Xi said. "But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves."

Richard McGregor, a long-time China hand with the Lowy Institute, said that he finds more current relevance in another Thucydides maxim — that while it is dangerous to build an empire, it is even more dangerous to renounce it.

"That’s where we are in Asia, with many regional countries worried about America’s commitment to the region; and equally fearful of a China which is not only in no position to take the U.S.’s place, but is not trusted to do so either."
— McGregor tells Axios

Why it matters: Almost no one expects trade alone to lead to armed U.S.-Chinese conflict. Rather, the biggest danger, Allison says, is that — as the slaying of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered WWI — the two countries will be pulled into conflict by miscalculation involving a third party, such as Taiwan.

"What happens is that a third-party provocation, an accident, becomes a trigger to which one of the two feels obliged to respond. and they find themselves in a war that neither wanted."
— Graham Allison
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