Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap. Graham Allison. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
In many ways the Peloponnesian War was a maritime struggle—the Athenians built their empire through their navy, the culminating point of the war was the failed Syracuse expedition where Athens lost 200 ships, and the war finally ended when Athens surrendered a decade later after the remainder of its fleet was destroyed by Sparta at Aegospotami. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Athenian exile Thucydides details how his native city-state’s empire and power expanded throughout the Hellenic world, often at the relative expense of status quo power Sparta.
“It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” This quote pithily summarizes Graham Allison’s phrase “The Thucydides’s Trap” and the hostile dynamic created by rising and displaced powers. In Allison’s latest book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, he delves into the changing dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship, and the implications this has for the security situation in the Indo-Pacific and worldwide.
Naval power is a prominent metric of the relative strength of the U.S. and China. Territorial conflicts between China and its neighbors, many of whom are U.S. allies, take place across the vast waters of the Pacific. Islands serve as benchmarks for Chinese territorial expansion, whether in the South China Sea throughout the Spratly Islands, the East China Sea and the Senkaku Islands, or surrounding the isolated democracy Taiwan. Over the last decade, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has expanded both its capacity and capability for maritime operations, and years of Chinese economic growth have funded programs aimed to deter U.S. intervention against its interests.
The role foreign navies played in China’s Century of Humiliation cannot be understated—historically a land power, the Qing Dynasty was unable to contend with gunboat diplomacy. Beginning with European and U.S. navies, foreign powers carved out trade and territorial concessions from China in the 19th Century. Most maddening was how the Japanese—viewed as wokou or “dwarf pirates” by the Chinese—leveraged modernized naval warships and doctrine to defeat China in several conflicts from the late 19th century through World War II.
Today China has fielded a navy second only to the United States, both in quantity and quality, and at a pace the regional navies in the Indo-Pacific cannot match. The Chinese Navy continues to roll out new platforms and capabilities, many designed to counter U.S. power projection, in the form of missiles, counter-space weapons, and cyberspace capabilities. Simultaneously, the Chinese are developing power projection capabilities of their own, refining carrier strike group training, tactics, and procedures, while deploying flotillas into the Indian Ocean and beyond. The impact China’s rise has had on the balance of power in the Pacific cannot be understated. As Allison writes, “There is no ‘solution’ for the dramatic resurgence of a 5,000-year old civilization with 1.4 billion people. It is a condition, a chronic condition that must be managed over a generation.” It’s from this perspective that I began my conversation with Graham Allison, and discussed Destined for War.
Brett Wessley: Since your article “Thucydides’s Trap” was published in The Atlantic in 2015, have any new developments changed your views on the topics addressed in Destined for War?
Graham Allison: Basically, the idea in the 2015 piece is pretty much the same idea. Thucydides’s Trap is the dangerous dynamic that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power. In 2015, I had only found 15 cases; in the book I have 16 cases. And actually, if you look at the website, we say this is an open story and so we are looking for more cases. These are all the cases we have found and certified of a rising power threatening to displace a major ruling power. Of course, there will be other cases where it is not a major power, so regional conflict would also be interesting. The purpose of the article and book in producing the Thucydides’s case file is not to produce a statistical data set for statisticians, but instead to have a series of comparative cases, each of which has certain differences and nuances that are very important, but which all have a similar storyline: that of a rising power threatening to displace a ruling power.
Can you speak to the role of sea power, and how the U.S. Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy have played in China’s rise?
Thucydides has helped us understand what is happening with China’s rise—better than the conventional wisdom from many China scholars who argue that because China had not been a sea power historically, and had not been interested in being a sea power, we should not expect much on the naval front.
I think that this was clearly a mistake, and has been since 1996 and the humiliation the Chinese felt over their having to back down when they tried to intimidate Taiwan, and we [the United States] sent aircraft carriers to the region to emphasize our superiority. Thucydides would say, and I think Realism would say, as China has become bigger and stronger, the presence and predominance of a potentially hostile power on its border or in its adjacent waters has become less and less acceptable...and they have sought to counter it. This was taken to be a threat to Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, which they regard as much a part of China as we regard California to be a part of the U.S., a sovereignty they saw challenged by the U.S. in 1996 when they tried to bring Taiwan to heel and the U.S. came to Taiwan’s rescue.
What China has done is very methodically build up an A2/AD [anti-access/area denial] and anti-ship missile capabilities that have successfully pushed the U.S. Navy back behind the First Island Chain when planning for war. They are intending to push us further back because they think in terms of the Three Island Chains. I was in Beijing recently and someone told me about the Fourth Island Chain. I asked, “What’s the Fourth Island Chain?” They think of that as San Diego.
You talk about AirSea Battle in your book—or now termed the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JCAMGC). When paired with the Third Offset, and capabilities such as autonomous drones and human/machine teaming, is this enough to counter China’s military?
Well, I would say we need a better acronym for what’s replaced AirSea Battle. The Third Offset is an understandable idea, I think, but if you are thinking of asymmetric technologies and asymmetric technological advances for the competition, the question is, “Would you choose the incumbent or the disruptor?” I think you would say the incumbent is much more likely to be wedded to current platforms and much less adept at adjusting and adapting to disruptive new technologies than the rising power.
So, if you were able to play the American-Chinese naval competition in the Western Pacific with both parties starting from scratch, that might be one thing. But we are wedded to big, expensive carriers and highly expensive aircraft, whereas China will be more likely to be more agile at unmanned technologies. When you look at the drone business in the commercial domain, I can buy a much better, cheaper Chinese commercial drone than I can an American drone. DJI [Dà-Jiāng Innovations Science and Technology] makes very good and cheap drones. So while at least some part of their navy seems to be captivated by carriers, I think they could more likely take advantage of technological advances, for example in unmanned sea and subsea robotics. When I look at the ways in which technologies could impact the naval balance there, I don’t see why the Third Offset opportunities are not as great for them as for us, maybe even greater.
On the topic of the fleet we’re wedded to, there’s been a lot of talk lately about the 355 ship navy and possibly reaching that number through construction of Littoral Combat Ships and de-mothballing frigates. What’s your view on the Navy’s ship count and the implications for the future?
I’ve always thought trying to count units makes no sense. I understand why it is politically attractive and why some in the Navy and some politicians like the idea. But while a kayak and a carrier might each count for one, they are not equal. So I don’t think collecting a bunch of old hulls and calling them combatants does much. I would much rather focus on capabilities, for which I would certainly prefer to have one or two good units than a hundred of these old hulls. I think the more interesting part of it is where the technologies will challenge the platforms we are wedded to. And those are big capital expenditures. Whether carriers, or advanced manned aircraft, or ships vs. mines. I think smart mines are something we should be much more actively exploring and deploying. I would rather have unmanned subsurface units that operate against ships or subs, than I would a whole bunch of Littoral Combat Ships or de-mothballed hulls.
I think the ship count sometimes feeds into the Navy’s posture vs. presence debate. If we’re not constantly patrolling the South China Sea eventually it becomes a de-facto Chinese lake, simply because we aren’t contesting their claims.
I was going to ask you about the case of the South China Sea, because you have to watch it every day. I was in Beijing two weeks ago with a lot of people talking about Thucydides’s Trap, and some people—Chinese—believe the contest in the South China Sea is basically over...and that they won. Now, has anyone said that at U.S. Pacific Command? Would they be considered nuts, or is that at least a plausible idea?
I think that would be news to us, but I’m interested in hearing why the Chinese think it’s over.
There was an Australian there, a former Australian foreign minister, and he said he thought it was over too. He basically said the Chinese have achieved their objective: all the governments in the region now ask first what will China do, and look first to China rather than the U.S. over the contest in the area. I said, “Geez, I didn’t think that was the prevailing American view,” and he said Americans are often slow to wake up. So, I just started looking at it again. If you think of the economic balance of power between China and the U.S. as a seesaw, and that's why I have that graphic in my book, that basically shows the seesaw is tilting and our feet are now lifting off the ground. That is the reality. That reality is even more extreme in the case of relations between China and every one of its Asian neighbors. So China is important to every Asian neighbor as the market and the source of investments, as the party that can squeeze them if it decides to squeeze them. Whether it's the Philippines—or now even Singapore—feeling this, it is a fact of life for them every day.
I say in the book that the economic balance of power, at least in the Asian region, has become even more relevant in everyday life than the military balance of power. The economic balance of power continues to shift in China’s favor, and the American abandonment of the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership]—which we had put so much of our energy and prestige into, telling everybody this was the pillar of our pivot, and getting other parties to invest in their own politics in getting TPP ratified and then pulling the rug out from under them—has left deep, deep wounds in all the parties. And you can see this in [Japanese Prime Minister] Abe, who is stressed in seeking and reaching an agreement with the E.U., exactly the kind of response you would see from people looking to go the wrong way in the economics component in this. I would say this looks ominous for the U.S. and its Southeast Asian allies, and for the likelihood of the South China Sea becoming a Chinese lake.
It is very ominous. Is it time that there needs to be a rebalance in the sense that we need allies—Japan, Australia, India—to have closer defense ties?
Maybe. We have explored that in the past and discovered, in the way the balance is shifting, Australia is a fascinating case to watch. We tried to get them to perform joint operations in the South China Sea for the past three years, and they said, “Forget about it!” The Australians are even looking at the situation again very carefully. There was a set of polls that came out in Australia last month where basically the Australian public feared the United States’ actions more than they feared China’s. Which makes you think—WHAT? Australia has fought with us in every war since the First World War. So, I would watch Australia as a bellwether in terms of what’s happening. I think that for Japan, the Japanese and Chinese roots of that conflict are so deep that Japan is a potential bigger ally. On India, Bob Blackwill, who was my expert out there, used to say the quickest way to get an Indian foreign policy expert to jump out the window is to talk about China. India talks out the one side of its mouth and talks out the other side, and actually both the Indians and the Chinese are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. I would say we have to watch them closely, but they are likely to stick to neutrality. So, it’s not really clear where our allies are going to come from in the region.
At the end of your book, you recommend a move away from the “Engage but Hedge” strategy, where essentially we give China everything, but do nothing to contain them. What’s the role that the Navy plays in this strategy, and something we’re doing in the status quo that we will need to reassess in the future?
The first thing to recognize that “Engage but Hedge” is basically an excuse to go with the flow. It’s very appealing; it lets everybody do whatever they want, and whatever happens you can say we are either engaging or hedging. So I think it’s been a delusion, and I think recognizing this is very important. As we go forward, I believe to the extent that we can maintain a military advantage and not be provocative, that's in every case better. So the thing the Navy could do most would be to try to ask what new technologies and new modes of operation we could develop, especially those that would allow us with a smaller budget to buy more teeth and effectiveness. China’s naval budget will soon exceed our own, especially with regards to regional competition, and it’s unlikely we can buy our way out of this problem. I would think that’s in the areas of unmanned everything—aircraft, seacraft, underwater-craft—and would be in the area of smart mines, which I know that the Navy doesn’t like because they mess up normal operations. In the area of cyber I know we are active, but I would say we need to be even more active—in the area of defensive cyber operations and closing vulnerabilities. So every hole we leave vulnerable, shame on us, whether it’s cyber or satellites. I think that would be the direction I would go in.
Destined for War is an excellent read for those interested in the consequences of a shifting power balance in the Indo-Pacific. While most of the audience is likely aware of China’s military and economic growth, Allison’s detailed metrics describing how the U.S. is being displaced will surprise readers. While the strategic picture painted by Allison is discouraging, at least for those supporting a strong role for the U.S. in Asia, the author is clear that we have options for staying engaged in the region. Looking back to previous instances of Thucydides’s Trap, status quo powers have demonstrated resolve and successfully managed rising powers—including most recently the U.S. during the Cold War with the U.S.S.R.
Allison is skeptical of the role allies will play in upholding a U.S.-led international system, especially within the Indo-Pacific, and undoubtedly his research has shown a reluctance of regional powers to push back against China. One still cannot ignore the role alliances have played in sustaining U.S. power worldwide, though, and a belligerent rise of China will create openings with both traditional and new allies in Asia. How the U.S. will handle the situation diplomatically is up for debate, but previous actions like withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership have squandered opportunities at the expense of economic nationalism.
Ultimately the U.S. will play the largest role in its own fate internationally. Whether the U.S. is destined for war, retreat, or peaceful engagement may be the largest question looming over the 21st Century.
Brett Wessley is an officer in the U.S. Navy, currently assigned to U.S. Pacific Command. The contents of this paper reflect his own personal views and are not endorsed by U.S. Pacific Command, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: China's national flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium, August 8, 2008. (Jerry Lampe | Reuters)
 Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert B Strassler (New York, NY: Free Press, 1996), 16.
 Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 215.