The US and China are already at war. But which kind?

In early November, esteemed Harvard professor Graham Allison went to the Washington Senate to teach a Greek history lesson. The subject was the Athenian historian Thucydides who, of course, wrote the account of the war between Sparta and Athens in the fifth century BC.

In the past, this kind of conflict only fascinated students of the classics. But in 2017, Allison wrote a tome called Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Fall?, and it became a surprising bestseller.

Allison argued – as Thucydides himself first noted – that when a ruling power is challenged by a rapidly rising rival, it traps them in a pattern that can easily lead to war. The dynamic between Sparta and Athens was an example of this.

Now US senators are wondering if history is going to repeat itself. Will saber chatter around Taiwan or recent revelations in the FT be over? hypersonic Chinese missile tests help recreate the “trap”?

Allison’s message is both encouraging and depressing. To start with the latter, the gist of the history he must understand for me (and the senators) is that power shifts cause problems around three ‘Ps’: perception, psychology, and (domestic) politics. Most notably, a ruling power that begins to feel insecure about a rival tends to overreact and miscalculate.

Likewise when an emerging power feels repelled. When this is combined with a feverish domestic politics, minor annoyances can quickly spiral out of control, such as when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering World War I.

Those three “P’s” can now be seen and insecurity, combativeness and misunderstandings continue to bubble up. “When a fast-growing power threatens to seriously displace an incumbent, you have predictable dynamics,” Allison says. “If you look at China and the US as an emerging and ruling power, they seem to be doing everything possible to keep up with this script.”

Fortunately, outright hostilities have so far been avoided, but this does not mean that war is not a real risk. On the contrary, as a hedge fund reliever Ray Dalio notes that a striking feature of the 21st-century world is that conflict can erupt on many fronts, not just kinetically.

As Dalio recently told me, “There are five kinds of war, and not all of them are gun wars. There is a trade war, a technology war, a geopolitical war, a capital war and there could be a military war. We’re certainly in the top four of them to varying degrees. . . and there is good reason to be concerned about the fifth type.”

On the other hand, the fact that war can be fought in so many ways in the 21st century may reduce the need for actual military conflict. It’s cold comfort to those on the receiving end, but if China wants to threaten Taiwan, it doesn’t necessarily have to do it with tanks or bombs. It can use cyber attacks or other financial and trade weapons.

This is already happening in the conflict between the US and China. A senator recently told me that China steals between $300 and $500 billion in intellectual property from the US every year, and while it’s impossible for outsiders to verify that number, the fact that such numbers are being thrown around suggests that a cyber war is on the way. already deployed – in all likelihood in both directions.

Likewise, this week in Washington, new hints of a capitalist war arose after a report by a bipartisan committee to Congress alleged that China is using capital flows to attack America. That too is troubling, especially for Wall Street leaders like Jamie Dimon or Larry Fink, who want to do business there, and for those who hope capital integration can reduce the likelihood of conflict. But the threat of a capital war, or trade war, is still less terrifying than the military type.

Of course, some, like Dalio, may answer that the former could lead to the latter. But there’s another reason for some optimism in the details of Allison’s own historical dataset, well-organized online on a website of Harvard’s Belfer Center. This summarizes all Thucydides-style conflicts over the past centuries and shows that while 12 out of 16 such geopolitical shifts sparked outright war, four did not.

The question is, were the four a fluke? Or a sign that man is getting wiser? Would the globalization ties that bind us, like the internet or those capital flows, mean that the Thucydides trap is not so relevant in a digital age?

We do not know yet). However, Allison has one last encouraging nugget to share: Since his book was published, it has not only become a bestseller in the US, but is also extremely popular in translations in China. “I never expected that,” he chuckles, explaining that the most popular passage among Chinese readers is a description of how Britain and the US avoided a Thucydides moment in the early 20th century by not going to war. to pull. Even from a trap can sometimes be escaped.

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her to [email protected]

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