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US, China Caught In Thucydides’s Trap – Analysis

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North Korea is threatening to emerge as the casus belli for an impending US-China conflict. President Donald Trump’s accusation that Beijing is not doing enough to rein in its prodigal younger cousin, North Korea, from its pursuance of nuclear and missile development programs and the Chinese rejection to such an accusation could be the trigger.

Trump’s pressure on China is precipitated by the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, second within a month in July, by North Korea with the potential to bring many cities of the US such as Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago within the missile’s range. For Pyongyang, its sole objective is to gain international legitimacy as a nuclear power with no immediate intention to strike the US. It wants to retain the right to strike in retaliation if threatened but is unlikely to strike first for clear knowledge of its own destruction. Possession of nuclear weapon is seen as the ultimate deterrence for its survival. No compromise on that.

This creates an uncomfortable situation for the US. Such a scenario does not assure the US about its security, which is why Trump expects Beijing to exercise its influence to prevail upon Pyongyang to abandon the nuclear and missile program. Trump had criticised China for its trade policy and accused it of raping the US economy. He had vowed to correct the trade imbalance but soon shifted focus on the North Korean threat. Viewed from a larger perspective, neither the US nor China finds easy to escape from this Thucydides’s trap, a deadly pattern of structural stress that results in a rising power challenges a ruling one. Neither is willing to yield space. Things get complicated as a result.

In a recent book titled Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap, Graham Allison argues that US-China relations at present are following similar historical pattern where a war could look imminent. Such a premise rests on examples in history when the Peloponnesian War devastated ancient Greece, the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable. Allison notes that over the past 500 years, these conditions have occurred sixteen times.

War broke out in twelve of them. Today with an unstoppable China and immovable America locking horns with two strong leaders Trump and Xi Jinping in either side of the spectrum spitting venom with the goal to make their countries “great again”, the seventeenth case look grim. Unless China scales back its ambitions or Washington shows greater willingness to accommodate in the power structure of the region and the world, any of the issues such as trade differences, cyberattack, or accident at sea or North Korea could provide adequate fodder to escalate a potential conflict into a major war. That clashing powers have kept peace in the past should give some solace that both should be willing to take some painful steps to avoid a disaster.

That possibility does not look easy. The situation in the 21st century world is quite different and looks messy. Any historical parallel could look inappropriate to analyse a potential war scenario today. And yet, historical lesson cannot be summarily dismissed either, which is why all windows must be kept open to explore a possible solution.

The present problem is how to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile path. Trump feels that Beijing has the real leverage to influence North Korea. Beijing is unwilling to accept such a charge. Trump remains unconvinced. Earlier, the Beijing-brokered Six-Party talks did not lead anywhere; it is virtually dead after Pyongyang walked out of it in 2008. Imposing economic sanctions in order to strangulate North’s economy and isolate the country internationally have yielded little result.

Beijing has rejected Trump’s intentions to link North Korea’s nuclear program and US-China trade. China’s reaction was in response to Trump’s tweet when he said America’s “foolish past leaders” had allowed China to make billions of dollars a year in trade and that he was disappointed in Beijing for not solving the problem. Beijing says these are two issues in completely different domains and unrelated and therefore should not be discussed together. Beijing has repeatedly said it is not its responsibility to resolve the North Korean issue, and that both Washington and Pyongyang need to take steps to calm tensions and address each other’s concerns. At the same time, Beijing has condemned unilateral sanctions imposed by the US on Chinese companies. Both failed to agree on major new steps to reduce the US trade deficit with China, casting doubt over Trump’s economic and security relations with Beijing.

Both have toughened stances so much that there seems to be little scope for arriving at a mutual agreed solution. While Beijing continues to urge for talks, the US and its allies stress on the need to increase sanctions, both unilaterally and through the UN. Urging both the US and North Korea to ease tensions, China’s UN ambassador Liu Jieyi accused “relevant countries” of violating Security Council resolutions by heightening tensions and failing to resume negotiations. Earlier, the Chinese proposal for ‘freeze-for-freeze” – suspension of joint military drills by the US and South Korea and suspension of nuclear and missile program – proved to be non-starter, with neither agreeing to it. Some hawkish Senators such as Lindsey Graham are fuelling fire to the tensions by saying that Trump is ready to launch a devastating military strike if diplomacy fails to stop the nuclear missile threat. On the other hand, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calmed the situation by saying that the Trump administration is not seeking a regime change and not seeking an accelerated reunification of the peninsula.

In the meantime, though some American and South Korean experts have cast doubt about North Korea’s ICBM re-entry capability, Trump is not expected to loosen his preparedness to cope with the North Korean challenge. These experts though concede that North Korea after decades of effort has a missile potentially capable of reaching the continental US, they hold the view that Pyongyang has yet to show the ICBM can inflict serious damage once it gets there. Though doubts remain if North Korea can arm the missile with a nuclear warhead and protect it throughout the flight, there are enough indications that North Korea would conduct more tests to perfect its capability to hit the US target with a nuclear tipped missile. In such a circumstance, can Trump prevail over China to check North Korea’s nuclear menace? If Beijing remains obdurate and uncooperative, then the US and China would find themselves in a collision course. The world would then witness the seventeenth time when conditions are ripe for a major conflagration. Of the two options, negotiation or declare war, the latter would have come to play. Can diplomacy still triumph and avert a potential war?


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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi, and until recently ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, is at present Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India. E-mail: [email protected]

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