Destined for conflict? Xi Jinping, Donald Trump and the Thucydides trap

21 Maggio 2020
  • Tense relations with the US and the question of whether armed confrontation can be avoided will loom large when China’s political elites meet
  • Structural shifts in balance of power have brought the countries closer to the brink, analyst says, with the South China Sea the most likely flashpoint
This is the fifth in a nine-part series examining the issues Chinese leaders face as they gather for their annual “two sessions” of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference this week. This story looks at the sharp decline of US-China ties, and where it may lead.

When thousands of China’s elites flock to Beijing for the delayed national legislative session starting on Friday they will face a renewed debate about relations with the US. Specifically, can armed conflict between the two economic superpowers be avoided?

The question is not new, but it has taken on a new urgency as the acrimony escalates between Washington and Beijing amid the Covid-19 pandemic, exposing growing cracks in the current global order.

Harvard professor Graham Allison raised the question in a 2017 book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? The reference being to the Greek historian of 2,500 years ago and the conundrum named after him on the likelihood of armed conflict when a rising power challenges a ruling power.

While observers generally agree that an all-out war between the nuclear-armed nations is improbable, there are potential risks for a limited military conflict.

President Xi Jinping has shown personal interest in the Thucydides trap concept, which Allison first posed in a 2012 newspaper article, referencing it on at least three occasions, including the eve of the swearing-in ceremony of US President Donald Trump three years ago.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, Xi said the Thucydides trap “can be avoided … as long as we maintain communication and treat each other with sincerity”.

But since then, the devastating Covid-19 pandemic has driven the deeply fraught US-China relations to the brink of an all-out confrontation as a result of strategic distrust and misperception, said Wang Jisi, president of Peking University’s Institute of International and Strategic Studies.

“China and the US are shifting from an all-around competition to a full-scale confrontation, with little room for compromise and manoeuvring,” Wang said in a speech in late March. “We cannot rule out the possibility that the two powers may fall into the Thucydides trap.”

That seems to sum up the tone of recent communications from the US side. Trump has vowed to “take whatever actions that are necessary” to seek reparations and hold China accountable for the Covid-19 disease that was first identified in the city of Wuhan at the end of last year. His top aides, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
and Defence Secretary Mark Esper, have been particularly blunt.
During the Munich Security Conference in February, Esper described China as a rising threat to the world order and urged countries to side with the US in preparing for “high intensity conflict against China”.

Mainland authorities are usually reluctant to play up sensitive diplomatic topics during the annual gatherings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, known as the “two sessions”.

Domestic concerns, especially the socio-economic upheaval wrought by the pandemic, will no doubt dominate the week-long meetings as the country faces the deepest economic contraction in decades, mass unemployment, and a possible manufacturing exodus from China.

However, the sharp decline in relations with the US in recent months and its possible consequences are expected to loom large in the minds of over 5,000 participants at the two sessions, according to Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University.

“Considering the boiling tensions with the US over Covid-19 and the resulting scrutiny of China’s global ambitions – which have dealt a heavy blow to the economy, especially at local levels, and left the country increasingly isolated – it may be hard to suppress such discussions,” Gu said.

Given the widespread public interest in these contentious topics, Xi and other top leaders may need to weigh in personally and set the tone for the national debate, especially on the future of China and US relations, he said.

But it would be unrealistic to expect major policy decisions on diplomacy, as “the two sessions are not usually known for substantial foreign policy deliberations”, said Zhu Feng, an international affairs expert at Nanjing University.

‘Worst-case scenarios’

The deterioration of US-China ties has clearly alarmed Xi and his top aides. On April 8, the Chinese leader issued an unusually stark warning that “we must get ready for the worst-case scenarios” in light of unprecedented external adversity and challenges, according to Xinhua.

While the state news agency did not elaborate on what Xi meant by worst-case scenarios, a recent study by a Chinese government-backed think tank offered some hints.

The China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), affiliated with the Ministry of State Security, said Beijing may need to prepare for armed confrontation with Washington amid the worst anti-China backlash since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, according to Reuters, which cited an internal report.

The report warned that China’s overseas investments, especially the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, could fall victim to rising anti-Chinese sentiments, while the US may accelerate efforts to counter Beijing’s expanding clout by increasing financial and military support for regional allies.

While the think tank declined to confirm the Reuters story, many international relations analysts shared similar bleak assessments of US-China relations.

“We are already in an all-around confrontation with the US, which sees both sides at odds on almost every front – from trade and tech tensions, military, ideological and geopolitical rivalry, to political and legal battles over the coronavirus,” Zhu said. “The prospects for bilateral ties are deeply worrying and we are just one step away from a new cold war.”

With much of the world still in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing’s critics and opponents, led by the US, have upped the ante in the blame-shifting game as they line up to pursue an international investigation into the origins of the deadly virus.

The coronavirus has also derailed most of China’s diplomatic agenda for the first half of the year, with Xi’s planned state visits to Japan and South Korea postponed.

Meanwhile, China’s relations with the European Union have become more tense, though Beijing managed to dodge a bullet at this week’s World Health Assembly, which adopted a mildly worded resolution drafted by the EU to carry out an independent inquiry into different countries’ response to the outbreak at “an appropriate time”.

But a growing number of European countries have pushed back against China’s diplomatic assertiveness and followed Washington’s lead to press Beijing for greater transparency over the coronavirus.

Shelley Rigger, a political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, said the CICIR report, if confirmed, offered a clear-eyed assessment of the situation and did not have the usual triumphalist tone present in many papers on international relations from China.

“That’s a good thing. Everyone needs to be realistic, and not indulge in wishful thinking or overconfidence,” she said.

Seth Jaffe, assistant professor of political science and international affairs at John Cabot University in Rome and an expert on Greek history, said the Chinese think tank report was “profoundly concerning”.

“The acrimonious narratives surrounding Covid-19 are currently reshaping the attitudes of leaders and populations alike, which is leading to harder-line strategic postures, as evidenced by the hawkish CICIR report,” he said. “In this way, the virus blame game is stirring up nationalistic pride and grievance, narrowing the space for political leaders to manoeuvre, and creating zero-sum dynamics that invite future conflict – a vicious cycle.”

According to Jaffe, the author of Thucydides on the Outbreak of War: Character and Contest, although the temperaments of Trump and Xi would matter enormously in any actual crisis, it was the structural shifts in the balance of power in recent years that had brought the two sides closer to the brink.

The most likely collision scenario, he said, would be in the South China Sea.

“I still worry most about military close encounters associated with American freedom of navigation operations, which could rapidly escalate in unintended but dangerous directions, for example, in the direction of a serious naval conflict.”

He said an international incident would put Trump and Xi on a reputational collision course, with each leader facing pressure to stand up to the other and not back down, given the mistrust and heated rhetoric.

“The danger, then, is an unforeseen spark, which could set off a frightening movement up the escalation ladder,” he added.

Zhao Tong, a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, also expressed concern that military incidents and conflicts with the US had become “less unimaginable given how quickly mutual animosity is building”.

Nationalist sentiment

In recent months, many senior Chinese diplomats have risen to Xi’s hardline, nationalist call and displayed their “fighting spirit”, often at the expense of the country’s global image.

“In future crises, if People’s Liberation Army officers, like some Chinese diplomats, calculate that it is in their personal interests to act extra tough, even if they know their aggression could cause war and cost China dearly, they might still feel incentivised to do so,” Zhao said.

To make things worse, according to Zhang Tuosheng, a security analyst from the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, Beijing and Washington had yet to set up an operational crisis management mechanism.

“One of the major lessons is that we’ve paid scant attention to the establishment of a series of mechanisms that have proven necessary during the Cold War era in preventing tensions spiralling out of control in the event of emergencies or a real crisis,” he said.

Beijing made clear its resentment over the warming ties between Washington and Taipei ahead of and during Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration on Wednesday, but a military confrontation over the self-ruled island in the near term was not likely, according to Rigger.

“The Chinese leadership surely understands the massive costs – in blood, treasure and reputation – of military action against Taiwan. They are way too smart to count on the US not intervening,” she said.

Rigger noted several retired PLA officers, including air force Major General Qiao Liang, had unusually toned down their hawkish stance on seeking reunification with Taiwan by force.

“That is a frustrating message for many Chinese to hear, but war is very costly and very unpredictable – something the US has learned through painful experience,” she said.

While experts called for efforts to lower tensions in the lead-up to the US presidential election in November, most said that would largely hinge on Trump.

“Anything is possible with Trump,” Rigger said. “If he thinks better relations with China will help him win re-election, he will do whatever it takes to turn the relationship around. I’d be really surprised if the Chinese leadership didn’t respond positively to such an opportunity.”

But Zhu said it would be naive to pin hopes on Trump, who was desperate to play the China card in his re-election campaign.

“Beijing should be particularly cautious on Taiwan and the South China Sea disputes and should not engage in rhetorical tit-for-tat with Washington,” he said. “We need to look beyond the Trump presidency and prioritise the steady development of bilateral relations over the need to outcompete Trump.”

The next story in the series will examine the debate over the future path of China’s relations with the United States. All the stories in the series can be viewed at