What Are the Odds of a U.S.-China War?

Handicapping whether the rise of one power inevitably leads to armed conflicto

By Andrew Browne

Is President Donald Trump’s vision for ‘America First’ on a collision course with Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’? Here, Mr. Trump welcomes the Chinese president at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 6. Photo: CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS


SHANGHAI—Two fiery nationalists— Xi Jinping and Donald Trump —now occupy the seats of power in Beijing and Washington.

In their mission to make their countries great again, one pursues the “China Dream,” one “America First.” Both see the other as the chief obstacle to their ambition; they’re locked into a zero-sum competition.

Halting efforts to cooperate on North Korea have papered over deep tensions on a range of issues including the South China Sea.

Are the U.S. and China headed for war? That has been the recent hot question in China circles, spurred by a deluge of books that handicap the chances.

Graham Allison, the Harvard professor who popularized the term “Thucydides Trap” to describe the risk of conflict when a rising power challenges the incumbent, isn’t optimistic.

Thucydides, the Athenian historian and general, summarized the causes of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) in a single line of a monumental history: It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, he wrote, that made conflict inevitable.

War has resulted in 12 out of 16 similar setups over the past 500 years, Mr. Allison asserts, including Germany’s challenge to Britain that led to World War I.

In a new book that bears the ominous title “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” he lays out how conflicts over trade, the South China Sea or cyberspace could all spin out of control.

It is “frighteningly easy to develop scenarios in which American and Chinese soldiers are killing each other,” he writes

Nonsense, responds the noted Sinologist Arthur Waldron, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. War is by no means ordained.

In a caustic review of Mr. Allison’s book, he declares that the Thucydides Trap is a fallacy. Dig deeper into Thucydides’s text, he argues, and it becomes clear that Sparta, though warlike, tried to head off confrontation with Athens, at one point suggesting a simple compromise.

There’s much more here than an academic dispute over classical history.

Fundamentally, the two professors disagree in their estimates of China’s rise, and thus the severity of the challenge it represents to the U.S.-led order that has kept the peace since World War II.

Mr. Allison focuses on data showing China’s wealth and power soaring ever up.

Mr. Waldron dwells on figures that indicate China’s crippling vulnerabilities. He mentions chronic water shortages and energy wastage. Others point to an alarming surge in corporate debt and an aging population that could stall, or even reverse, growth.

Those who live in China, rather than observe it from afar, juggle both perspectives daily.

Inhale the toxic air in almost any city and it’s clear why wealthy Chinese are fleeing.

Yet, testifying to China’s creative energy are the fleets of emerald, blue and fluorescent orange bicycles that have overrun the same cities in a matter of months as multiple startups have jumped into a bike-sharing business powered by smartphone apps.

China is choking to death; China is vibrant. Both are true. Washington’s challenge is to make sense of these contradictions, and steer a policy course that avoids the extremes of capitulation and reckless belligerence.

The Obama administration was timid; Beijing seized the opportunity to start turning the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.

To the extent that the Trump administration has a China policy, it’s on hold due to North Korea.

Mr. Trump has suspended the verbal hostilities he unleashed on the campaign trail in hopes that his Chinese counterpart will use his influence to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program. If, as seems likely, Mr. Xi can’t, or won’t, deliver a solution this truce could quickly crumble.

Influential voices are urging a hard line. Ely Ratner, a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, recommended last week the U.S. should consider basing troops on disputed South China Sea islands. Whether the White House takes that inflammatory suggestion, once its disillusion with Beijing’s North Korea efforts sets in, expect renewed bellicosity on issues from trade to Taiwan.

There’s little doubt about Chinese intentions. As the journalist Howard French points out in his erudite book “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power,” China aspires to restore its position at the pinnacle of East Asia.

The coming decades, he writes, will involve “a certain amount of yielding to China.”

How much will depend on a fine understanding of Chinese capabilities. While China has made giant leaps in military technology—enough to strike U.S. aircraft carriers—it will become progressively harder and more expensive to advance further.

In a speech two years ago, Mr. Xi insisted that “there is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap.” But he went on to warn against strategic miscalculations by unnamed “major countries” that “might create such traps.”

The next few years will be perilous: The risks of conflict can’t simply be dismissed. Mr. Waldron, though, is confident that Chinese leaders would quickly smother any unintended conflict rather than escalate and risk their country’s ruin.

“They are, after all, not idiots,” he writes.

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