Escaping the Thucydides Trap

In recent years, we have witnessed the eruption of a new Cold War between the U.S. and China. The reason for such hostilities is Washington’s rigidity in accepting the demise of the three-decades-old unipolarity of the world. Beijing’s economic might has made it a major contender at the world stage in the battle of influence. It’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is aimed at consolidating its influence through a web of geo-economic projects across three continents. However, Washington’s decades-old policy of seeing every development at the international stage through the lens of a zero-sum-game has been the primary bone of contention between the two major powers. In this regard, on the one hand, China is making peace overtures toward major pivot states—South Africa, Brazil, Russia, France, Iran and Saudi Arabia—while on the other hand, the U.S. is increasing its military presence in Beijing’s backyard–the South and East China Seas. Through a network of growing military alliances with regional states in territorial conflicts with China, the U.S. is trying to contain Beijing in the South and East China Seas. Amongst such containment efforts, the issue of Taiwan is most volatile, sensitive, and prone to trigger an all-out round of hostilities.
From China’s perspective, the U.S. is trying to rattle Beijing through provocations vis- à-vis an issue that is most sensitive to it. Hence, in a tit-for-tat move, China is making sure that Washington, too, feels some pain for its unilateral and arbitrary actions. In this context, the most crucial move made by Beijing at the geo-political chess-board is the side-lining of U.S. dollar as the preferred currency for international trade. For its bilateral trade arrangements with other countries, Beijing is prioritising Yuan over the U.S. dollars. Several reports have emerged in recent months indicating Chinese desire to by-pass the dollar in its bilateral trade with South Africa, Brazil, Iran among others. Likewise, Beijing is also incentivising third-world countries—primarily in the African continent—to maintain trade relations with China using Yuan as the currency of choice instead of the dollar. In response to Beijing’s aforementioned actions, Washington has upped the ante and secured basing rights from Philippines. In addition to that, the U.S. also undertook the largest military and naval exercise with the Philippines armed forces in a bid to deter Chinese threat in the region. Similarly, the U.S. signed an agreement with South Korea recently for a mutual defence scenario amid a nuclear environment. Although the agreement is overtly aimed at countering the threat posed by a nuclear-weapons-armed North Korea, the real purpose is the thorough encirclement of China on its maritime borders. This encirclement effort by the U.S. also resulted in the announcement and signing of the AUKUS agreement under which a non-nuclear-weapons-armed Australia will be provided nuclear-powered submarines by the U.S. and U.K. in the coming years. Japan, too, is part of such moves to encircle China through active defence cooperation and collaboration with the U.S.
Although China only extended verbal reservations over such U.S. regional moves, it reacted sharply to Washington’s diplomatic, military and political overtures towards Taiwan. Consequently, China conducted one of the biggest, ferocious and extremely intimidating military exercise in the Taiwan Strait near the disputed island territory to send a serious message to both Washington and Taipei. The military manoeuvres included both the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The military drills not only demonstrated PLAAF’s ability to undertake offensive bombing runs in the disputed island of Taiwan, but also the capabilities of the PLAN to enforce a stringent naval blockade of Taiwan. During the exercises, Taiwan repeatedly raised objections and sounded alarms vis-à-vis the crossing of supposed red lines by the PLAAF fighter jets. The situation got serious when Chinese President visited the troops and advised them to remain ever-ready for an incoming conflict which would require every ounce of training. On a smaller scale, Taiwan, too, has launched naval drills aimed at piercing a stringent naval blockade of the island at the time of conflict with its arch-nemesis, China.
In view of the aforementioned, the likelihood of a hostile clash between the U.S. and allies and China in the East and South China Seas is increasing with every passing day. The said clash, however, would be devastating not only for the region but also for entire world as it is likely to engulf the entire globe. Besides, a serious clash between the U.S. and China has potential to seriously disrupt international trade, global supply-chains, resulting in a massive economic depression that will derail the international economic order in place today. Such a scenario will trigger serious social unrest in most of the under-developed and even developing countries, leading to a wholesale tearing of the global social fabric. Therefore, it is extremely crucial that despite the current underpinnings of the US-China bilateral ties, the two powers find ways to reconcile with each other in way that ensures mutual co-existence for the long-term and sustainable betterment of the existing global order. For this to happen, both the countries in question need to take certain steps.
First, both the powers need to engage in the age-old method of protracted diplomacy that will help them find common ground in issues of conflicting nature. In this regard, it is of extreme importance that not only does both the players engage in negotiations with utmost sincerity but also show flexibility vis-à-vis their respected positions on issues of critical importance. Here, it would be prudent to mention that the U.S. needs to let go of its Cold-War- era approach of viewing everything through the lens of a zero-sum-game–a concept that may have been beneficial for Washington in the past but is certainly not helping its stature in the present rules-based-order. Moreover, the U.S. also needs to accept China as a regional power, if not a global power, which Beijing is increasingly becoming despite Washington’s repeated negations. Likewise, China also needs come to terms with the idea that bilateral and multilateral territorial conflicts cannot be resolved through unilateral or arbitrary actions which have the potential to flare-up into open hostilities, allowing other extra-territorial powers like the U.S. to jump-in and exploit for their own geo-political objectives.
Second, with respect to issues sensitive to each party, both Washington and Beijing need to tone-down the rhetoric and find ways for peaceful co-existence and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. In particular, in the context of Taiwan, the U.S. needs to take a step back from active interference and allow the offices of the U.N. Secretary General to take the lead in drafting way forward, in conjunction with the communist government in Beijing.
Third, both the players need to understand that their collective efforts are required for the betterment of the mankind. Hence, it is important for them to join hands in service of humanity, addressing global challenges such climate change, and pandemics etc. Besides, water conservation and space exploration are also some of the fields Washington and Beijing can take the lead in for the long-term sustainability of the planet.
To conclude, it can be said with some level of certainty that without cooperation and peaceful co-existence between the U.S and China, the existing rules-based-order won’t be able to sustain itself for long. Resultantly, the world will slip into an abyss of ‘might is right’, where the powerful will trample the liberties of the weak; where justice will be served through one’s sword; and where the established international norms would mean nothing.

The writer is a freelance columnist who has an interest in International Relations and Geopolitics. He can be reached at

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