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Superpower Diplomacy: Offensive Realism and the Thucydides Trap Theory on Potential Future Strife between China and the U.S.

The proposition of the Thucydides Trap is that the chances of war increase when a state comes closer to becoming the new hegemon. China and the U.S., when evaluated as offensive realist powers that prioritize power as a precursor to national security, are moving towards the dangerous prospect of a military conflict. 

The China-U.S. relationship, in the perspective of the latter, is a “strategic competition” in which the U.S. engages in assertive policy-making against its fellow superpower. China similarly works to assert its parity with regards to its core issues, which are often defined as inalienable policies. The political tension between these two states has always been palpable—but now that they are closer than ever to equal financial footing, how will their political and potential military engagements evolve in the future? Graham Allison, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense to President Bill Clinton and, more recently, the previous Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, argues that tensions between the two are rising as the economic gap between them closes. This in turn could result in the sudden burst of a conflict that would precipitate a chain reaction of increasingly significant altercations. John J. Mearsheimer’s offensive realism, particularly when applied to China and the U.S., supports Allison’s theory with a similarly bleak view of how both parties may act to secure their own global influence: Mearsheimer hints at a second Cold War, this time between the U.S. and China. When combined, these theories provide a useful framework for analyzing the trend towards conflict between these two superpowers as well as the delicate nature of U.S.-Sino diplomacy and how it will need to be used in order to avoid the scenarios of potential warfare predicted by both Allison and Mearsheimer. 

At the core of this analysis are the issues that each theory seeks to explain. Allison’s Thucydides Trap references historical wars of the past to argue that history can repeat itself—and that the history of power struggles have, more times than not, concluded with large losses for all participants involved. Mearsheimer’s offensive realism focuses on what can be condensed into three key terms: security, survival, and hegemony. Survival, however, must be the precursor to any other state policy, as it is dependent on the outcomes of said policy, and the only way to achieve this with certainty is to be the primary rulemaker, or the hegemon itself. The search for both power and security is best exemplified in the conflicts of the South China Sea and Taiwan. With regards to the South China Sea, the naval interactions of the two states are a point of interest. The U.S. performs Freedom of Navigation Operations as a deterrent to China’s backing of its nine-dash line, a demarcation first identified on a mid-20th century map of the South China Sea through which the PRC claims well over half of its area. China, which has employed evidence including the aforementioned map to be an indicator of its right to the islands in that portion of the sea, has accused the U.S. of imposing its forces far beyond its land’s borders and into what the PRC considers part of its own perimeter. Furthermore, the PRC also states that any potential confrontation regarding what China calls its sovereign lines would be the sole responsibility of the American side. The U.S. argues that it will respond to China “from a position of strength,” hinting that it will not be the one to back down, either. This is just one example of how friction can increase over time not only from a political standpoint, but from tangible military interactions in the day-by-day of international waters. 

With regards to the South China Sea, as well as other regions such as the East China Sea, the PRC consistently emphasizes that defending the borders is a central priority, and a press statement from July of 2021 suggests that China is not against using force if compelled to do so. Chinese President Xi Jinping echoed a similar sentiment in 2015 when he argued that although the Thucydides Trap does not exist, it is not outside the realm of possibility depending on the circumstances. These warnings have a physical manifestation as well, which is present in China’s ever-developing navy in both fleet numbers and technology. The potential for conflict hinted at by a state can sometimes go without saying, even as it begins to develop outside of the diplomatic stage. Mearsheimer’s offensive realism can be applied here in that the state, even if it seeks to develop its army in the name of defense, can have a significant impact on its relationship with others. 

The United States, for its part, has also utilized ambiguous wording in its approach to China. Its One China policy, which differs from the PRC’s One China principle in that the American interpretation does not explicitly support Taiwan being a sovereign entity of China, allows the U.S. to assist in the reinforcement of Taiwan’s defense mechanism. However, the U.S. has not clarified what steps it would take if Taiwan were to be struck by China’s navy in what the latter claims is a reunification effort. In the Taiwan Strait, similarly to the South China Sea, Chinese and American ships supervise one another while also consistently raising the capabilities of their forces in response. Both sides avoid conflict, likely because they are well aware of the repercussions a physical conflict between two superpowers would have not only domestically, but on a global scale as well. Still, though caution is exercised, it is difficult to tell what the tipping point for either side may be, and, at the same time, how they will continue to practice offensive realism as they seek to prevail over one another. Allison says that war does not have to occur, and can be avoided—but not without a cost. Though China and the U.S. do engage in bilateral cooperation in global affairs, there is no denying that they are competitors and, as defense strategists and policy makers would generally argue, adversaries more so than they are friends. However, as Allison says, the two states will need to engage in less confrontational dialogue before a serious issue erupts. This is imperative because, as Mearsheimer notes, their significant leverage on the international stage allows them to take more and more aggressive stances. Going forward, the two countries will need to increase their diplomatic efforts and cooperation as well as curb their offensive realism in order to avoid future conflicts.

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By Paloma Valentina Carrillo-Gallegos

Paloma Carrillo-Gallegos is a master’s student in the Contemporary Chinese Studies program at the University of Oxford, class of 2021. She obtained her undergraduate degree in International Studies at the University of California, Irvine, where she also completed a minor in Chinese Language and Literature. The focus of her studies has primarily been on East Asia and how its states interact with others on the global stage. In the future, Paloma hopes to work for a non-governmental organization and further her studies with a PhD in International Relations.

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