Pacific Dialogue
The trappings of fate?
By Liang Xiao  ·  2024-04-28  ·   Source: NO.18 MAY 2, 2024

According to the ancient Greek version of the world map from the fifth century B.C., the outermost layer of the world was ocean, and in the center of the ocean was one large continent. In the middle of the continent, there was the Mediterranean Sea. This continent was divided into three parts: Europa, Asia and Libya, which are now known as Europe, Asia and Africa. Ancient Greeks believed the farthest west was the vast Atlantic Ocean, while the Pamir Plateau was considered the eastern end of the world. As for the European hinterland to the north, it was described as a harsh and barren land, while the south, Africa, had the endless Sahara Desert.

From this perspective, Greece does seem to be at the center of the world. The ancient Greeks lived in the Mediterranean, so their perception of the world naturally revolved around the Mediterranean region, which was an important reason that Sparta and Athens fought.

The Thucydides Trap is an international relations concept proposed by Graham Allison, founding Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in 2012, in which the rise of a new power triggers fear in an established power, potentially leading to conflict. It is named after the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who identified the rise of the city-state of Athens as a major factor causing fear and ultimately leading to the Peloponnesian War with its rival Sparta in the fifth century B.C.

Allison traveled to China in late March for a series of exchanges with Chinese scholars, and was received in Beijing by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. On April 19-20, during a visit to Harvard University, China's Ambassador to the U.S. Xie Feng also had several talks with Allison.

The topic of conversation, from Beijing to Harvard, was the same: The Thucydides Trap is not inevitable, and there is no need for China and the U.S. to fall into it.

In today's geopolitical landscape, the term Thucydides Trap is predominantly used by the West to describe the relationship between China and the United States. However, the Chinese perspective is that this concept primarily draws from Western historical experiences and may not directly apply to the current international situation.

Confucianism has been deeply influencing China since the fifth century B.C. with the concept of "peace is precious" and "making harmony a top priority." China's vast territory, abundant resources and huge population long presented a formidable challenge for its rulers, requiring considerable effort to manage effectively. As a result, ancient China had little to no real motivation to explore unknown territories or set out to conquer.

With the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China's primary development goal was to achieve industrialization, and over the decades that followed, particularly after the country embarked on its journey of reform and opening up in 1978, the country devoted itself to learning advanced technologies, eventually becoming the world's largest manufacturer.

In recent years, the U.S. has become increasingly wary of China's evolution into a major global power. Under different administrations, there has been a noticeable escalation in U.S. attempts to curb China's rise, viewing it as the primary competitor capable of challenging its economic and military dominance.

This context most likely influenced Allison's introduction of the Thucydides Trap concept.

The world is big enough for both China and the U.S. to develop at the same time. Both of them have successfully launched spacecraft to Moon and Mars. This contrasts with the historical rivalry between Athens and Sparta or other city-states in ancient Greece, where competition for scarce resources and land in a confined area often led to conflict.

But if Chinese people need to continuously improve their living standards, does this mean that China has to compete with the U.S. for global resources? This is an unlikely assumption.

In these areas of mutual interest, safeguarding peace on Earth, the pursuit of clean energy solutions and the exploration of outer space, given they are essential for the future of humanity, cooperation between China and the U.S., as the world's leading economies, is of the utmost importance.

In 2021, Allison already mentioned during a panel hosted by the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank, that China and the U.S. "are condemned by nature and by technology to cooperate, in order to survive."

So, with plenty of room for individual development and mutual benefit, China and the U.S. are not fated to fall into the Thucydides Trap. 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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