Book Review | Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?

 By Gurpreet Singh Bajwa
Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’ Trap? by Graham T. Allison

Graham Allison’s provocative book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap released is a seminal work published in 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The book is a result of Allison’s traction from his 2015 essay in The Atlantic wherein, he argued that historical metaphor of ‘Thucydides’ Trap’ distilled the ‘History of Peloponnesian War’ provides the best lens to understand the dynamics between China and USA. This book looks at the speed of China’s Rise and the challenge it poses for the US policy makers who had got used to USA’s prime position in the world affairs.
Thucydides an ancient Greek historian wrote about a war that devastated the two leading city states of classical Greece two and half millennia ago. “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Banking on this historical pattern the book reviews past five hundred years wherein, sixteen cases are studied, in which a major nations rise has disrupted the position of a dominant state of which only four did not result in a war.

While Allison may be accused of being wiser in hindsight but this book highlights the importance of evading the Thucydides trap and hence is an essential read of 288 pages. It is divided in four parts. Part One and Three are entirely dedicated to China’s Rise and Part Two is the explanation of the historical metaphor of the Thucydides Trap, while in Part Four Allison brings out the crystal ball and delves on the twelve clues for Peace and where to go from there? He also addresses the frequent criticism of his hypothesis about the Thucydides Trap in the Seven Straw Men as an appendix.

China’s rise is explained by the quotes from Napoleon “Let China Sleep: when she awakes, she will shake the world.” And one of Thucydides, Athenians to Melians 416 BCE “According to law of nature, one rules whatever one can. We did not make this law. We found it when we come to power and shall leave it to those who come after us”, and Xi Jinping in 2012 “The greatest Chinese Dream is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.”
Graham quotes 2015 RAND study on the US-China Military scorecard which by 2017 gave China the advantage or approximate parity in six of the nine areas of conventional capability that are critical in a showdown over Taiwan and four of the nine in a South China Sea conflict and predicts that Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of US dominance. The guarantee of US win no longer exists and hence justifies the branding of “China” as the ‘other’ and thus justify a narrative which allows US military expenditure in technologies to maintain its edge and replace the unipolar world with China and Russia as the Great Power adversaries.

The Chinese Strategy is unabashedly “realpolitik” unencumbered by any serious requirement to rationalise behaviour in terms of international law or religious norms. While Sun Tzu explained in The Art of War “The highest victory is to defeat the enemy without ever fighting” but Graham Allison explains the propensity of Chinese strategists to seek victory not in a decisive battle but through incremental moves designed to gradually improve their position, known as the “Salami Slicing”, phenomenon we witness on our northern borders. Graham argues that Chinese planners have an obsessively holistic strategic world view, that is, the evolving context in which a strategic situation determines the “shi” (momentum) of the situation. It comprises of geography, terrain, weather, balance of forces, surprise, morale and many other elements. As Sun Tzu says a Master Strategists action is taken at an ideal moment it is often not detectable “the process that leads to victory is determined so far in advance like setting a stone in motion on a steep slope, the force applied is minute, but the results are enormous. Hence, Chinese Strategist favour means other than war as they have a historical tradition of developing fifty shades of warfare (hybrid/multi domain operations), akin to a chess players (five moves ahead approach) versus weiqui ( also known as “go”) where the purpose is to envelop the opponent , wherein the player thinks twenty to thirty moves ahead.

The future flash points have been discussed at length where the Great Powers can also eventually cooperate, that is, nuclear anarchy including nuclear terrorism from North Korea and Pakistan, technological disruptions, climate change. The ensuing tussle between the two great power relations will require a reset of the world order which will entail how much USA will secede its leadership role and allow China to seek its own sphere of influence in the international framework, with China asking for setting of new standards in the world affairs and the USA willing to withdraw from the international agencies underwritten by it, the great game has a capability to fall for the Thucydides trap, that is, get into conflict which is not desired by either of the Great Powers.

Efficiency of the Communist Party of China to increase its GDP equivalent to USA in near future and hence its defence budget is both a boon and bane for China, the treatment of its 56 non-Han minorities (attempts at assimilation) is a challenge and non-adherence to international rules in South China Sea despite International Court of Justice rulings in favour of Philippines will dictate the future of China’s Expansionism and its exploiting of its construction and infrastructure companies and technology disrupters in 5G and other niche technologies will be a challenge for the US. Also what steps China needs to take for next generation of “Internationalists” students returning to China to reconcile with more Nationalistic or populist inclinations of their fellow citizens is a major challenge for China. China also needs to focus from world manufacturer to internal consumption to ensure its rise.

Also noted by the world community, it is the withdrawal of US from world flash points and its transactional treatment of its allies, which has led to Europe’s free trade agreement with China which essentially is a realpolitik view of the rise of Chinese economic power and as China seeks parity with the US, America finds itself in a position being challenged by an underdog seething from a century of humiliation and seeking for itself the rightful position as the ‘Middle Kingdom of the World’. As John F. Kennedy noted post the Cuban missile crisis, ‘While defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert confrontations that force an adversary to choose between a humiliating retreat and nuclear war’ . It is prudent for us to remember that ‘Destiny dealt the cards but men played the cards’. Hence, this book allows the world community to understand the flash points and strategic interests of the Great powers which will allow peace and progress to prevail or otherwise.