Last week, I attended a conversation between retired general David Petraeus and political scientist, professor, and author Graham Allison. They spoke at the 92Y Cultural Institution and Community Center on Manhattan's Upper East Side about Allison's new book, Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides' Trap? Their conversation was both stimulating and concerning, as I left that night with a new concern for where our relations are heading with the up-and-coming economic powerhouse that is China.
China's rise over the past decade is undeniable, even to the most stubborn champions of United States dominance in the world. They are now the largest economy in the world, are flexing their military and strategic might in the Pacific, and are positioned to challenge the U.S. as a superpower. This emergence is all the more concerning as one begins to understand Thucydides' Trap, an ancient Greek metaphor for the dynamics of a rising power threatening to displace a ruling power.
Historically, this dynamic has ended badly, with 12 of 16 cases examined over the last 500 years leading to a war between the newcomer and the sitting power. Thucydides' Trap advises us that typically inconsequential incidents and events that would have little to no impact on relations between two powers can lead to conflict due to unmanageable consequences.
From a military perspective, things do not look great. There has been considerable flexing of military might in the East and South China Seas in recent years by both sides. Intercepts of U.S. aircraft by Chinese fighters have occurred with some regularity, and China has warned the U.S. not to "challenge Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea." U.S. naval presence in the area has been increased to levels unseen in recent decades. The U.S. has responded to Chinese construction of new bases and airfields with a show of force that has included aircraft carriers, submarines, and fighter jets.
Christopher Castellano is an OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army Veteran.
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