The US, China, and Singapore's second act

Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, who was in town recently for a closed-door dialogue organised jointly by the Asia Society and the S. Rajaratnam Endowment, discusses in this interview with The Sunday Times the likelihood of war between the United States and China and what that means for Singapore. He is the co-author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights On China, The United States And The World.

Q Would you be able to share what your keynote address was about?

A I was asked to be the provocateur. So my keynote address was about the Thucydides' Trap, a term I coined. I argue that it is the best lens available for understanding the relationship between China and the United States, and therefore the likely impact of this on both the Asian and global order.

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides was explaining the war between Athens and Sparta, the two big city states of classical Greece in the 5th century BC, which ended in disaster for both.

He said famously: "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable." Note that he has two variables - the rise of one power and the reaction - the fear - of the ruling power.

A few years ago, I coined the metaphor, Thucydides Trap, as a vivid reminder that when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, trouble ensues.

Political scientist Graham Allison thinks that Singapore can be a source of wise counsel about what is happening in Asia, with its position as a small but successful country with no vested interests. ST PHOTO: RACHEL AU-YONG

What's happening today is that on the one hand, you have a rising China which threatens to displace a ruling US, and the rise creates fear, and as such, risk (of confrontation).

This is a dangerous situation because there have been 16 cases in the last 500 years when a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. In 12, the outcome was war.

But we needn't be fatalistic. We can learn the lessons of the previous cases, both the failures and successes.

Q What are the learning points from the four cases that didn't result in war?

A They are each complex but one interesting case is the rise of the US and the alarm that this created in Britain at the beginning of the 20th century.

In this case, Britain, the ruling power, faced two rising powers - Germany and the US. So it had to choose which was more dangerous.

The Germans were much closer and also they were building a navy. That was very threatening to the British navy.

But having analysed the realities of the situation - in particular the fact that if the US were to try to seize Canada, a British colony at the time, Britain would have a difficult time supplying its army to defend Canada - Britain decided to adapt, accommodate and adjust its relations with the US.

Over time it did so so skilfully that it enrolled the US in effect as an ally in World War I and World War II.

In the 1960s, many Americans imagined that the Soviet Union would overtake the US economically. This created a great deal of fear.


So thought leaders from the business sector, universities, non-profits should ask themselves, 'Yes, we're interested in upholding the rule of law in the South China Sea but how accommodating should we be about an island that doesn't have any intrinsic value?


There were then several confrontations and, at some point, the chance of nuclear war was somewhere around one in three.

But the parties evolved, and put some constraints on the competition which we now call the Cold War, which was war in every form except bullets and bombs.

The communist Soviet ideology proved to be hollow and ultimately the Soviet Union collapsed. And so that ended quite differently.

Then there are two special cases - the rise of Japan in the 70s and 80s to surpass the Soviet Union and China, and the rise of Germany in Europe.

In both these cases, the countries were within the framework of Nato and the US-Japan treaty, and therefore the governments and states were not building up military capabilities.

In the absence of international institutions, would a rising Japan have created a great deal of fear in the Soviet Union, and armed itself with nuclear weapons, or been more assertive in trying to take back its islands in dispute with the Soviet Union?

I think so. International institutions can serve to constrain behaviour that would otherwise lead to danger.

Q Where do you think the relationship between China and the US is right now?

A Mr Lee Kuan Yew said it's not possible to pretend that China is just another player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.

But China's rise is creating fear everywhere - Singapore, Japan, Thailand, the US. As the ruling power, the US has provided the framework for Asian order for the last seven decades, which has allowed for the greatest expansion of economic growth in 5,000 years, including for China.

But as China grows stronger, that order seems more constraining and uncomfortable. Thucydides would say that a power that's growing stronger will naturally feel like it deserves more respect and influence - that's normal. Likewise, the ruling power will feel insecure and resentful.

Most of what we're seeing now is the surface-level symptoms of this Thucydidean dynamic: When a rising power threatens a ruling power, it's inevitable that there's severe structural stress.

So you see China saying, "We are now a bigger, more important economy, we should have a larger share of IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank votes". But the US says: "No, we created these institutions, you've benefited from this, you should be happy."

And then China says: "Well, if you won't accommodate me in this way, maybe I'll create the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). I have the money." Is that normal? I would say it is. Thucydides would say it is.

Now the difficulty is that the rising power then exaggerates how much it's been constrained. So most Chinese believe that the Americans are trying to contain China and prevent its rise.

That's an absolutely crazy idea. Similarly, many Americans think that it is China's intention to displace us, as opposed to the Chinese view that it is simply trying to do well by its people, which means having to grow economically. The question then is how the tension is managed.

Q So is war avoidable?

A Yes, if wise US and Chinese leaders looked at the situation and appreciate the danger we are in.

I can't think of any condition in which a leader would say, "This is a good day to declare war on the other side". But the rise of fear elevates otherwise relatively insignificant events, propelling reactions and actions until you get an outcome nobody would have chosen at the start, but there you are.

In the case of the disputes in the South China Sea, it's not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Philippines does something and the US feels obliged to support it, and China feels a need to respond. So it's important to keep conversations between the two nations about the risks going.

If you look at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris now, (US President) Barack Obama and (Chinese President) Xi Jinping seem to have taken some fairly bold first steps to tackle climate change, so that's a promising sign.

So in dealing with shared threats, where cooperation is essential for success, lo and behold, the relationship now gets more positive.

Q To what extent is the cooperation between China and the US dependent on their top leaders?

A One of the reasons Thucydides' Trap is such a powerful idea is that no two leaders are playing the game forever. Politics change.

It's dangerous if a new leader comes along and doesn't appreciate the nature of the relationship. Successfully managing relations is not something that can be achieved by signing a paper, but managed over a whole generation. It requires not just two leaders, but their governments and then their leading citizens to get their heads around it.

So thought leaders from the business sector, universities, non-profits should ask themselves, "Yes, we're interested in upholding the rule of law in the South China Sea but how accommodating should we be about an island that doesn't have any intrinsic value?"

Q Do the other players in the South China Sea dispute - for example, the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan - need to do something?

A Thucydides said that it's not simply rise versus rule. As the rising power appears to threaten the ruling one, the ruling power thickens its alliance relationships with other parties to try to counterbalance the rising power. So look at the relationships between the US and Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam. Even Singapore gets tied in.

The rising power, seeing these alliances, feels it has to strengthen its own. So look at Mr Xi's relationship with (President Vladimir) Putin in Russia, which gives it some counterweight. But the Philippines, for example, isn't a member of this alliance just for the sake of being helpful to counterbalance China. It has its own interests.

Sparta actually had an alliance with a city called Corinth, and the Corinthians got into a fuss with the people in Corcyra, or Corfu today.

It was a conflict in which neither Athens nor Sparta had any real stakes, but Sparta felt obliged to come to the defence of Corinth, or risk being seen as not protecting its other allies. In which case, Athens was obliged to come to the defence of Corfu, and soon they found themselves at war with each other. The relationships with allies are streams that run in both directions.

Q What can Singapore and its citizens do about the tensions given its strong relations with both the US and China?

A I would urge Singaporeans to study Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He was first and foremost concerned about the well-being of Singapore, realising that it needs to avoid being trampled in an environment with two elephants. Singapore can play a role as he did and help leaderships in both countries understand how the relationship can be a positive one, in spite of the potential conflict.

Mr Lee thought that it was possible for the US and China to share leadership of Asia in the 21st century. China would likely emerge as the dominant economic power in the region, while the US will likely remain the dominant military power for at least as far as one can see.

The two can live with each other in reasonable accommodation, and states like Singapore can discourage the bidding of either.

It can also encourage the other parties who may be more willing to risk war, like the Philippines or Vietnam, that this is not just about them, but the stability and well-being of the whole region.

Q Where do you see Singapore in the international arena?

A I don't know. One of the difficulties with Singapore having been so successful as a society over the last 50 years is that it's hard to imagine what the second act would be.

Second, it might be unfair to ask who the next Mr Lee Kuan Yew would be. There isn't such a person.

But the strong mandate at the recent election, as your Prime Minister has said, will provide the opportunity to build a new team and gather its strength, so that over the next decade or two, it is possible to have people of the same calibre as the remarkable ones who had led Singapore to this stage.

Mr Lee didn't spend a lot of time giving people advice that they didn't ask for. But his advice was so valuable that intelligent people came to ask him (for it).

So I wish that Singapore continues to be a source of wise counsel about what's happening in Asia. I don't think there's anybody better positioned to do that as a small but very successful country, not a contestant with vested interests.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'The US, China, and Singapore's second act'. Print Edition | Subscribe