The real (Thucydides) trap is simplistic thinking

Professor Graham Allison's simplistic finding that "rising state power usually causes armed conflict" is being swallowed as gospel by media and academics alike. It is dangerous and defeatist thinking that works against progressive development of a North-east Asia security dialogue and future protocols.

"Thucydides Trap" is the thesis that a rising power upsets the established balance of power, making war inevitable. And the concept has had a good run in both Chinese and American public security discourse. However, it is based on little more than a superficial reading of modern history and the "trap" is far from an accepted paradigm.

In the Indo-Pacific, for example, Australia has risen to become a middle power without conflict with Indonesia; Thailand has risen to be the dominant industrial-military power in mainland South-east Asia without a major state incursion; and India continues its rise without major threat of war.

The Long Peace in the Western Pacific has been the United States' great diplomatic, security and economic success. The legacy of the US' role in the Western Pacific is near spotless, from guaranteeing peace and security in post-war Japan, which peacefully re-industrialised, to the establishment and nurturing of Seato which grew into Asean, and defence of the Taiwanese and South Korean polities.

The only solution to Asia-Pacific security with an emergent China in its midst is one that engages China, and establishes the institutions and dialogues necessary to allow China a voice in shaping the security paradigm of its region. It is possible to have lasting peace in the Indo-Pacific in a post-US hegemonic order and we in the region should all be working towards this end.

As for claims of China's assertiveness, it is worth remarking that it can be considered natural for China to push back against the forward-deployed US forces in the Western Pacific. Imagine if 20th-century Republican China had had an undefeatable flotilla sitting off San Diego through the US' Great Depression in the 1930s. Chinese control of the Eastern Pacific is as anathema to the US as the US' control of the Western Pacific is to China.

 

This is not to make light of China's naval ambitions. Thucydides' world had just one sea, the Mediterranean. However, the China-US rivalry for naval dominance is spread over two oceans, the Pacific and the Indian. China's quest to become a two-ocean power is clear. And Chinese hegemony of the Indian Ocean is not so far-fetched. But likening Beijing to Athens in growing naval supremacy belies just how nascent China's naval power-projection capabilities are and ignores the role of the US in the region.

Yet while China looks like strong-arming South-east Asia, it is still caught in a Western Pacific game set by the indisputable naval hegemon. The principal feature of naval power is the ability to project power, something China has lacked for the entirety of its civilisation. To contrast its impressive Coast Guard vessels with the weak navies of the Philippines and Malaysia belies the larger game. China has limited mobile nuclear-power capabilities and lacks sufficient submarine or aircraft carrier fleets to effectively project ocean power.

Indeed, the China security paradigm is defined by the two-island chain clinch projected by US naval power, the US strategy of encircling China by establishing outposts or military bases along the island chains surrounding the Philippine Sea. China's shipping lanes are completely dominated by US power, by the forward- deployment line of the 7th Fleet in Japan and in the narrow Strait of Malacca. To liken China to the Delian League which controlled the Aegean is more than a stretch when China has to jostle with US naval ships even in its own near seas.

As China was excluded from the 20th-century security framework of East Asia, its rise cannot be status quo. The world depends on the US to tactfully defend, withdraw, secure, stare down and stand up, all at the same time in varying spheres in East Asia. However, China must be included as part of the security framework for Asean, Australia and the Japan-Korea-Taiwan triangle.

Economically, the world has engaged with China, but the security apparatus of the Western Pacific is stuck in a post-containment malaise. That the end of the Cold War ended in the triumphalism of End of History - just as in Prussia after defeat of the French Empire - demonstrates not a successful containment, but a failure to engage with a now-resurgent Russia and an ascendant China.

If we want to avoid falling into simplistic thinking about the changing security paradigms of China's rise, let us hear more Chinese voices on what China sees its role in the Pacific as and let us see how deep and multifarious the debate on China's role in the Asia-Pacific maritime law and security architecture can be.

The pressing need for the future is rebalancing the 21st-century Asia-Pacific security architecture.

Establishing such an architecture to ensure the continued prosperity of all nation-states in the Western Pacific, North-east Asia and, increasingly, the Indian Ocean will be the political and regional integration challenge of the 21st century. The world is more complicated than Thucydides', and our narratives need also be.


  • Tristan Kenderdine is research director at advisory Future Risk, and PhD candidate at the Australian National University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2017, with the headline 'The real (Thucydides) trap is simplistic thinking'. Print Edition | Subscribe