Avoiding a Thucydides Trap in China-U.S. Relations

One of the hottest questions, if not the most important, in American foreign policy is whether the United States and China are headed toward conflict. Within academic circles, this concept has been deemed the “Thucydides Trap,” or the seemingly inevitable conflict between a rising power and a declining state. In contemporary international politics, policymakers and academics alike have worried about the potential for war between a rising China and a declining United States. Are we on such an unavoidable collision course?

Gregory J. Moore, Head of the School of International Studies and Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China, argues that the United States and China are not yet at the tipping point for conflict – typically this occurs when both countries have roughly equal power, Moore shows that China still lags behind the United States in terms of defense spending and GDP – but there are several obstacles to resolving a potentially crisis-damning fate. He points to eight factors, most of which are security related, that may make avoiding a Thucydides Trap difficult. Besides Chinese maritime aggression, cybersecurity concerns, and other security dilemmas, the most important policy issue is the lack of a coherent American foreign policy toward China. Moore claims that the current U.S. stance resembles engagement with hedging, but has not reached containment as many Chinese policymakers assert. 

Economic and structural concerns also impede Sino-American cooperation. The ongoing trade war and incompatibility in trade practices across the two countries is a point of tension. In a grander perspective, the development of parallel institutions that revolve around Chinese power rather than American dominance in the international system may also spark conflict. China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and consolidation of BRICS power countering traditional institutions puts China in a role to grab power. Finally, Moore points to an overall trust deficit in the Sino-American relationship, which may only be exacerbated by “hot spot” issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet.

What is to be done to avoid such a cataclysmic reality? Moore claims there is still room for agency and good diplomacy. On the Chinese side, it is important to recognize that American foreign policy does not seek to contain China. On the American side, it would be beneficial to open dialogue on the possibility of unintended escalation.

Moore’s talk today stems on research he is conducting while on sabbatical at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University. To learn more about his other research, click here.


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