An Unexpected Thucydides Trap!
By Matthew Clark
From the year 431 B.C. until 404 B.C. the Hellenistic World waged a "war like no other." Known as the Peloponnesian War, after the Peloponnesian Peninsula on which Sparta, one of the wars main protagonists, was located, the war has been etched in the minds of historians due to the work of THUCYDIDES. Thucydides was a general in the Athenian army, the other central protagonist in the conflict. Eventually exiled from his home city, Thucydides wrote a history of the epic contest which had so consumed the ancient Greek world. Thucydides, in telling the wars tale, went beyond the mere rehashing of events, to inform the reader of underlying causes. particularly on why the war was fought in the first place! As noted in the Belfer Centre online page, Thucydides wrote on the struggles causes by employing the argument, "It was the rise of Athens, and the fear it installed in Sparta, that made war inevitable." The Athenian General was analyzing the wars underlying causes, yet had hit on a formula which political scientists recognize to this day. As Graham T. Allison, former United States Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Plans, (1993-1994), has explained, "(there) an apparent tendency towards war when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power as a regional, or international hegemon."
Over time Thucydides formula has come to be known as "Thucydides Trap." National governments fall into conflict due to the fear of the future might of their rivals. It is not a universal principle, for instance Great Britain did not wage a battle against the emerging United States leviathan in the latter part of the 19th century. Nevertheless it has occurred on many occasions throughout history. Perhaps the most famous application of "Thucydides Trap" in modern history is World War One. In fact the "Great War" involved at least two versions of the formula. France, and Great Britain, feared the growing industrial, and military strength of Germany, so they used the opportunity provided by the crisis initiated in the Balkans between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, which then travelled to Western Europe, to commence hostilities against the Teutonic power. Meanwhile Germany had deep misgivings regarding Russia's increasing industrial, military, and demographic force. Therefore the German's took advantage of the same crisis producing such turmoil in the Balkans, to initiate war with the Eurasian empire.
A quick glance at contemporary international politics suggests the United States might be tempted to wage a pre-emptive conflict with Communist China. China, as shown by her governments mediation of a Saudi-Arabia -Iran peace deal, heavy economic investment in Africa, and diplomatic alliance with Russia, is a nation in apparent ascendency. America on the other hand has the hallmarks of a country in decline. United States institutions, as witnessed by the insolvency of the Silicon Valley Bank, face an existential threat. The U.S. military, over the last several years, has repeatedly failed to meet recruitment goals. Political factions are so divided against each other that a Congresswomen, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has suggested the different political groups should have a 'National Divorce,' thereby sectioning off into smaller, more coherent jurisdictions.
Recent events in Afghanistan (an American military defeat), and Ukraine (defeat of a Western Ally), speak to America's declining robustness. If the United States is going to take on China, now would be the logical time to do it. Waiting any longer will result in further decline. Striking now might result in victory, whereas delaying the struggle will end in certain defeat.
In reality the time has already passed by where a move by America against China could achieve victory. Not only is America growing weaker, so are her allies in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Canada is so pathetically diminutive militarily that, combined with it's huge undefended territory, a territory in proximity to Russia, means the Northern Kingdom is an albatross around her allies neck. Only Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, have armed forces strong enough to be a factor on the conventional battlefield. Meanwhile China has the support of Russia, making the Eurasian Alliance far superior to the Oceania NATO/E.U. organization(s).
Although there is always the chance of an Sino-Yankee conflict, particularly with pro war sentiment embedded in both of the main political parties in the States, the odds appear to be against a fight. An example of this statement is the qualified U.S. support for Taiwan. Despite constant saber rattling by the Beijing government against Taiwan, the United States administrations have not made clear what they would do if Communist Forces invaded the island. It is apparent the American political leaders are well aware of their weaknesses! Therefore they do not commit to any policy. Probably, in the event of Taiwan being attacked, U.S. combat forces would stand down, limiting their involvement to supplying the Taiwanese armed forces with munitions.
Yet while a China/United States "Thucydides Trap" conflagration is unlikely, there is a potential for the Middle Kingdom to be in a similar military battle with another opponent. An India/China war under the Thucydides guise is not nearly as remote as one might think. In this version it is the Chinese leadership which must be haunted by the specter of an ever growing behemoth next door to them.
Indian and China fought a war in October of 1962 which created much hostility between the two nations, especially on India's part as she was bested by her communist neighbour. Nevertheless because of the extensive changes both nations have undergone since that time the outcome, with the exception of the resentment and tension it caused, is not relevant to the present situation between the two Asian giants. What is of consequence is the growth of both nations, in particular the rise of India over the last decade. According to the World Bank India's economy increased by 8.7% in 2021 ( to China's 8.1%). This is even more than in 2016 when Macro Trends, an international statistical organization, estimates the Indian economy enjoyed 8.26% growth. These figures indicate that Indian economic expansion is a long term pattern.
China also has very good economic numbers. Macro Trends puts the Middle Kingdom's economic performance in 2016 at 6.85%, with the 2021 numbers being an 8.11%increase. Yet Chinese politicians have to worry about the trend of Western jurisdictions to decouple their economies from the Oriental power. Although the West is no longer an overwhelming dominant financial factor, as they once were, it is still formidable. Decoupling will hurt Chinese business.
However the Communist Beijing Government's largest concern is probably in the area's of population, and demographics.
According to the United Nations India recently in 2023 saw her population surpass that of China. Both nations have 1.4 billion plus inhabitants. Yet according to Worldmeter, a statistical organization focusing on international developments, the median age of Indians is 28.4 years. The Chinese median age, again using Worldmeter as a reference, is a much higher 38.4 years of age.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies analysis of China's populatin trends indicates it has undergone substantial change. From 1950-1970 the Communist country experienced a 50% increase in the number of it's inhabitants. Measures were then taken by authorities to slow the birthrate. By 1980 the fertility rate decreased from 6.1 to 2.7 per child bearing women. With the adoption of a one child policy in 1980 the number of births decreased dramatically. Combined with gender selective abortions, the 'One Child Policy' has resulted in 30 million more males now residing in China than there are females. Furthermore, despite the recent abandonment of the one child policy, Chinese women are not in any rush to become mothers. Communist government figures reveal the birthrate in 2021 as 1.3 births per women of child bearing age!
India on the other hand has a much more vigorous demography. According to Pew Research the subcontinent has undergone a tripling of it's citizens since 1945. Britannia.Com claims half of the country's people are under 30 years of age, with half of the nations workers being employed in agriculture. In India rural communities have a higher birth rate than urban ones do.
Given the different demographic realities of the two jurisdictions it can be argued India has a stronger position long term than does China. Chinese youth will soon be faced with an onerous burden trying to support a numerically exploding aging population. India meanwhile will continue to enjoy the benefits of a youthful people. While Her birthrate is declining, it is a gradual, easy to accommodate manner than that of China.
If the two countries were allies these developments would be of little consequence geopolitically. This, however, is not the case. Despite both countries belonging to the BRICS organization, there is an obvious rivalry between them. Conflicts along the shared Himalayan border is common. India's media often is highly critical of the Chinese.
This adversarial relationship, combined with India's growing economic might, and potential military strength, such as the Globes largest group of 18-34 year old's, has to cause concern in Beijing! Presently China has a marked advantage in industrial, and military capacity. In the future this might not be so certain. Strike now could be the prevailing sentiment among Mao's descendants.
If such an action were employed the political leader most tormented, outside the combatants, might be Russian President Putin. Forced into a deep alliance with China by the hostility of the NATO nations, Russia has nevertheless long had a substantial, positive political relationship with India. This has been deepened by the increased trade the two nations have conducted with each other since the February 2022 start of the Ukraine conflict. President Putin will not want to choose alienating either of the Asian rivals!
In conclusion future geopolitical circumstances might see a "Thucydides Trap" employed from an unseen direction. It might not be the United States waging a pre-emptive conflict against China, rather it could be forces of the Middle Kingdom trying to stem the might of a growing India, employing a pre-emptive strike of their own.