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Move relations forward

Honest politicians should think hard on how to escape the Thucydides trap rather than waste time trying to claim moral high ground


China was called a "strategic partner" and a "responsible stakeholder" by former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively. During the Barack Obama presidency, China and the United States issued a joint statement saying that they would work together to build a China-US cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit.

The signing and releasing of the National Security Strategy report by former president Donald Trump in 2017 ushered in a dramatic worsening of the relationship between the two countries. The report claimed that "the competitors that challenge American power, influence and interests attempting to erode American security and prosperity" are, in order of the seriousness of the threat, China, Russia, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Iran, jihadist terrorists and transnational criminal organizations. Under the Trump administration, the China-US relationship deteriorated at such an alarming speed that some experts feared that the two countries might slide into a military conflict.

To avoid falling into the Thucydides trap, as cautioned by Harvard professor Graham Allison, which would have catastrophic consequences, China and the US have a choice between three paths.

The first path runs in the direction of what British historian Niall Ferguson deemed the "Chimerica "model: a marriage of the Chinese and US economies. But it is unrealistic at the moment that a process of deepening China-US integration can be revived. If anything, a broad-based "decoupling" is already underway.

The second path is each side seeks to weaken the other, or even engages in outright sabotage, which is a favorable choice among US hawks. China has neither interests nor capability to interfere in US domestic affairs. No external forces can suppress China's rise. The US elites should be aware that Sparta which emerged as the winner of the Peloponnesian War suffered a subsequent decline, opening the way for the peripheral Greek kingdom of Macedon to rise to power.

The third path is to foster more common interests by fighting common threats. Although China-US relations have been strained for some time now, the two countries have a history of coming together to fight common threats. After the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, China and the US worked side by side to counter the threat posed by al-Qaida and its ilk. After the 2008 financial crisis, they came together again to pull the world back from the brink of a global depression. And in 2014, China and the US signed a deal that paved the way for the Paris climate agreement.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a common enemy for all countries. No country acting on its own can win the war against this one. The common interests of China and the US in defeating COVID-19 far outweigh their differences. Unfortunately, the Trump administration was more interested in demonizing China than protecting people's lives. A golden opportunity for avoiding the Thucydides trap was wasted.

When Joe Biden took office, China sent positive signals, calling for abandoning the "outdated Cold War mentality" and adding that "confrontation will lead us to a dead end". Despite the Biden administration's tough talk, China still shows great patience, understanding the constraints the Biden administration is facing.

The Biden administration has been busy framing China-US tensions in ideological terms, while knowing well that the China-US conflict is driven by geopolitics rather than ideology. Honest politicians should think hard on how to escape the Thucydides trap rather than waste time trying to claim moral high ground.

There are many common challenges China and the US are facing. For example, China and the US can work together within the framework of the World Health Organization to provide more vaccines to the rest of the world.

The Biden administration has made addressing climate change a priority, which is also a focus of the Chinese government. There is great room for green cooperation between the two countries. China and the US should also deal with their own bilateral problems in a more conciliatory manner. China-US trade conflicts needs to be solved in line with the World Trade Organization rules. All additional tariffs on both sides should be canceled as soon as possible. Due to the impacts of the pandemic, China's imports from the US fell below the targets last year. The two sides need to restart negotiations on the trade deal.

China should adhere to the phase one agreement of the deal, but at the same time, the force majeure clause should apply. In other words, the solution can be either extending the time frame for China to complete the purchase of US goods worth $200 billion or reducing the target value.

In short, nothing is inevitable until too late. By deepening and expanding cooperation in areas where their interests overlap, China and the US can manage their differences and escape the Thucydides Trap.

The author is a senior fellow and member at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.