Are U.S. and China headed for war?

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Guest: Graham Allison

AMT: Hello. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current.

AMT: Still to come Italy considers a new law that would entitle female employees up to three days of paid leave if they're in pain during their monthly menstrual cycle. Some say it's about time others say it opens the door to gender bias at work. We've got that debate in half an hour. But first it is called Thucydides Trap, and it means America and China could be destined for war.

I just want to say it is great a honor to have The President of China and his incredibly talented wife. A great great celebrity in China, a great singer. It is an honor to have you in the United States. We've had a long discussion already and so far I have gotten nothing. Absolutely, nothing. [Laughter] But we have developed a friendship I can see that. And I think we're going to have a very very great relationship. I look very much forward to it.

AMT: While against the clatter of camera shutters, that was U.S. president Donald Trump and the Chinese president Xi Jinping at the presidential retreat in Florida in April. During the U.S. election campaign Mr. Trump threatened to label China a currency manipulator and he raised concerns in Beijing by taking a call from the president of Taiwan. Just after the election. Now he says he and the Chinese president have really great great chemistry. But despite that new bromance dark clouds may be on the horizon between the two nuclear nations. Graham Allison has been thinking a lot about the prospects of conflict between China and the U.S.. He is the director of the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He's a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans and he's written a new book entitled Destined for War: Can America and China Escape through Thucydides Trap. Graham Allison joins me from Harvard University in Boston. Hello.

GRAHAM ALLISON: Good morning Anna Maria. Glad to join you.

AMT: What is Thucydides Trap?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Well it's a big idea by a big thinker named Thucydides who was actually the founder of history. And the idea is that when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power in general bad things happen. Alarm bells should sound extreme danger ahead. So Thucydides wrote about the competition between the two great cities states of classical Greece 2500 years ago, and he said in a famous line it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable. So Thucydides Trap is the deep structural stress that occurs when a rising power like China threatens to displace a ruling power like the US.

AMT: And what does your research show you about where facilities trap has led to conflict between what happened between Athens and Sparta and now?

GRAHAM ALLISON: In the book I look only at the last 500 years, the most recent 500 years. In the last 500 years I find 16 cases when the rising power threatened to displace the ruling power. Think of the rise of Germany at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and World War 1, and 12 of the 16 cases in the war. Four of the cases it did not work. So Thucydides line about inevitable is an exaggeration. It just means likely. But as I argue in the book business as usual in the case of US and China will most likely produce history as usual. And in this case it would be catastrophic.

AMT: Okay well let's talk about this a bit because China is obviously the rising power.


AMT: And the ruling power is vulnerable right now.

GRAHAM ALLISON: Yes. Correct. If you've not been following China it's just unbelievable what's occurred. In our lifetime, just to the last generation, a country that did not appear on any of the international league tables for anything has grown to be a competitor or a rival indeed even to surpass the U.S. in many many different dimensions. So for example if you go back to 1980 China's GDP was less than 10 percent the GDP of the U.S. in 2014, the big headline from the IMF World Bank meeting was China is now the number one economy. The largest economy in the world, measured by the best yardstick which is purchasing power parity. And today China's economy is to the 15 percent larger than the U.S. and the current trend line by 2024. It’ll be half again larger. So you look and you say a chart in the book that this is the previous version of what I give to my students at Harvard and it says when could China number one. And I have in my full chart 26 indicators but this is just 10 of our biggest automobile manufacturer, biggest smartphone manufacturer, biggest robot manufacturer biggest number of billionaires, biggest the fastest supercomputers, largest economy whatever. I asked students when could China become number one. They say 2040, 2050, not in my lifetime. You know it have to answer each one. Then I give them chart two. Chart Two says, the headline of it says “already” and I tell him what year this is already happened. Vaclav Havel the former president of Czech had this great line that I quoted in the book. He says, “Things have happened so fast we haven't yet had time to be astonished”.

AMT: Well let's talk a little bit more about China through the prism of how it sees the world. How does its own history with foreign governments and armies play into how China sees the world versus how the West sees the world?

GRAHAM ALLISON: China is almost the poster child case of a rising power from Thucydides point of view within many ways it resembles Athens in that respect, not as a democracy. Leave that aside. But in terms of just exploding in terms of its wealth. And in the Chinese case they think of their rise not as a rise but simply as a restoration, because in Chinese history and every any Chinese you talk to will explain this to you. For 5000 years China was the center of the universe the largest the most powerful country in the world, the most advanced country in the world. That was then this 200 year interruption, when Westerners came and interfered in China and imperialized China and exploited China and took Chinese territory. So that’s the last 200 years. But now what is happening as China has emerged to be itself again to be big and to be strong, is pushing back and pushing out these Westerners who were taking advantage of it to become itself again the biggest power in the world as it sees it. And in the first instance, the biggest power in Asia. So the Chinese story is one what they call it the century of humiliation in which a great China which was supposed to be at the top with the pyramid was somehow knocked off the pyramid by these Westerners who had taken advantage of technology and other, plus bad leadership in China. But in any case that was then they've gotten over it. They've emerged to be big and strong and they now want to be to return to the place that they had in fact long before Donald Trump picked up his tagline about make America great again. When Xi Jinping the current president of China became president in 2012, colloquially, his tagline was make China great again. It is literally the great rejuvenation of the great Chinese people.

AMT: So you say that when President Xi has nightmares the apparition he sees is Mikhail Gorbachev. Why is that?

GRAHAM ALLISON: The Chinese sense of order. So the Chinese have, in terms of the Chinese values order is the highest value and chaos is the greatest fear. So in the case of Gorbachev, Gorbachev took a communist authoritarian system and was trying to bring it into the real world and he tried to both do economic reform and political reform at the same time. So one of them if you remember was called Perestroika which was the restructuring of the economy, basically to move towards a market economy. And the other one was called Glassnost which is basically we're going to become more democratic and people are going to be able to have free speech and say what they think. Because he loosed all these forces at one time, the whole house came tumbling down. And actually the Soviet Union fell apart and disappeared. So instead of the Soviet Union on their maps now we have Russia and 14 other newly independent states. So for Xi Jinping that was where he thought that China was tumbling down that same road that China had adapted significantly and much more effectively than the Soviet Union to a market economy. So under Deng Xiaoping they began moving towards the basics of a market economy. But similarly the political leadership was by a combination of democratizing and allowing corruption to grow rapidly was going to see the whole society collapse. He said he's trying to prevent that by this very ambitious agenda that he's undertaking now.

AMT: So he doesn't want the Chinese Communist Party to go in the way of the Soviet Politburo.

GRAHAM ALLISON: Absolutely. This is complicated for him because communism is dead. I think I can find more Communists in Cambridge Massachusetts than I can find in China. So nobody believes in communism but he wants to resuscitate the party as a vanguard leadership. He wants four or five percent of the population and really less than 1 percent of the so-called mandarins to be able to rule the whole society. Now how do you justify that? Well that's a complicated thing because in this day and time most people think, “Well, wait a minute mean why should you rule me rather than I should have a chance to say something about my own condition”. So he's trying to resuscitate and relegitimise the party. And now they just call it the Party. They haven't got rid of the name communism but they don't talk about communism very much and the Party is supposed to be people who are more virtuous. That's why the corruption drive and more competent. And they're going to steer the ship for everybody else. And as long as they deliver great results and they've been delivering three times the growth rate of any other economy like ours like the U.S. or like Canada, and as long as they can make China great again so Chinese are we're proud because China's pushing back and taking its place in the world. So if they deliver the goods other people will say well you the guys that can run things and that's fine.

AMT: So before we go any further because I do want to hear where you think there's real potential to a war between China and the U.S. Let's just stop for a minute and look at President Xi, because his own life informs where he's coming from on this.

GRAHAM ALLISON: He was born a princeling. So his father was one of those buddies in the civil war. And so he thought he was going to live in Beijing and everything was going to be nice. He'd just be rich and fooling around. But lo and behold came the Cultural Revolution when Mao has had ahead this madness. And basically they took everybody that had any position and they threw them into the ground. And basically he went to the countryside where as he says he had to basically struggle to eat anything he could find and shovel dung all day long. And his sister was so distressed by this that she committed suicide and he thought about what am what am I going to do. He's just nine years old. And basically he ultimately decided well I'm going to become redder than red. And he called his way back up the system, determined that he was going to get to the top at some point. And when he got to the top he was going to make a difference in the society. So this is a person of substantial capability.

AMT: Okay, so this is a very wise wily determined man and his sparring partner is Donald Trump.

GRAHAM ALLISON: Yes. Well this book was five years in the making. So this was not written for Donald Trump. It's not a book about Donald Trump.

AMT: But that's the reality the U.S. has right now apparently. Didn't Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi actually discuss Thucydides Trap?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Thucydides Trap, yes. Absolutely. Xi Jinping talks about a lot because Chinese Unlike Western leaders study history and they're very interested in trying to learn from history so Xi Jinping talks about this often to foreign leaders including President Obama, but others who come to visit. And President Obama talked about this because he was at least interested in the idea. I mean you can't deny Thucydides’s historic pattern that when a rising power threatens to displace the ruling power there very typical behaviors that occur in both parties. And there's no question China's a rising power and that the U.S. is the ruling power. For Donald Trump, who knows? I would say I think if Hollywood were making a blockbuster pitting China on the path of war with the U.S. Central Casting could not have found a better lead for Team America than Donald Trump would be.

AMT: And you outline a number of nightmare scenarios that could lead to war between China and the United States. Before we talk about some of those just give us the shorthand, what's the Chinese military capability right now?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Ever since 1996 when China had tried to intimidate Taiwan and the U.S. had said a couple of carriers into the area and China had to back down. They regarded that as a great humiliation. They've been building up their capabilities so that that could never happen again. And they've already had a big impact on the U.S. Navy's operation, so that the U.S. Naval carriers now operate beyond the first island chain which is the chain that goes from Taiwan to Japan. Because if they get inside that zone they can be hit by missiles that China has deployed on the mainland. So the Chinese D21 and D26 missiles were very good carrier killers. So the local balance has changed in a way that makes China more confident as it looks at potential conflicts in the regional area. If you go to the global area, China can't fight a war in the Middle East the way the U.S. can. But if you go to the nuclear arena, China and deliver nuclear warheads against American cities. And if you go to the cyber area, China can impact you know could close down electrical grids in the Northeast as effectively as the U.S. could do something equivalent in China.

AMT: Okay, so let's talk about some of the scenarios that you outlined. The first involves an accidental collision in the South China Sea. What happens?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Well it's hard to tell. And again this is just you know war-game it, and in both Beijing and Washington what happens how often and I remember this often at the Defense Department, you get one group of people to play the Chinese hand and one group to play the American hand. So you're playing the American hand and your ship by accident crashes into my ship and it sinks. And so I'm the captain on the ship, and I think you do this deliberately and so I sink an equivalent ship in your navy. And you then respond by, perhaps if I've done this by air or going after you think, “Well wait a minute he may be attacked by other ships in my in my fleet here.” So you attack the air base from which my aircraft occurred. And now you're attacking my air base or one of these islands so I respond then against your supply point which may be on a base in the Philippines, or it might be a base in Japan, or it might be a base in Guam. And so we get on an escalatory ladder in which case one of us may be playing tit for tat and one of us may be playing tip plus for tat. So at some point, particularly if there is a launch of something from the mainland and China, the person playing the American hand may think: “Well okay we can't tolerate that”. So you could imagine a cyber-action against that facility trying to prevent it launching additional missiles against the American ships. Then one thing leads to the other and pretty soon you find you see yourself in a place where you didn't want to go. And in these games which have been played over and over, even though people know they don't want to get to the end of the game in which Americans and Chinese are killing each other the process turns out to be a lot easier than you would suspect.

AMT: And then there's North Korea. How could a collapse of the North Korean regime become a conflict between China and the U.S.?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Well that I would say the most likely path to war if a war between China and the U.S. were to occur in the next year or two, it starts in North Korea. And let me just do it very briefly. So basically because of the Thucydidian dynamic, so you have a rising power threatening to displace a ruling power. Under those conditions, each of the parties knows that the primary problem is the other guy. So would you really want rising China, is for me to be out of there out of the whole area. And that's true. That's what they want. They would like the U.S. to just exit Asia. And the ruling powers thinking: “Wait a minute why did I belong here. As I've often felt Chinese.” The U.S. is an Asian power we're not leaving Hawaii for sure, we're not leaving our alliance with Japan. And actually we've been in the South China Sea in the East China Sea all these 70 years since midway, providing an international order about a security order and an economic order that provided the environment in which China has been able to grow to this area of strength so we're not leaving. In the Korean case we came to the rescue of South Korea. South Korea survived. South Korea has grown to be a great successful democracy the 13th largest economy in the world. South Korea is a poster child for the American led international order. We're very proud of the South Korean democracy. So the idea that we should just be out of there, I mean no. That's the inherent situation. Under those conditions nothing… There's no trust zero trust. Everything one party does is misperceived by the other. So you're trying to be helpful to me and I am suspicious that you have something else up your sleeve. And I take an action that I think is purely defensive. And you see it: “Oh he has some ulterior motive and he's doing something else.” No under these conditions an external party or an extraneous event that would otherwise be easily managed or even would be inconsequential can become the trigger for a set of actions and reactions by the two of us that lend lead us to a place where we don't want to be. So to the North Korean case specifically, North Korea is in the next year going to test an ICBM that could deliver a nuclear warhead against San Francisco or Los Angeles or indeed Vancouver. So that's going to happen unless North Korea is prevented from doing so. That's on the one hand. On the other hand Donald Trump has said that it's not going to happen. I'm not going to allow this to happen. I don't know what Obama did and I don't know what Bush did and I don't know what Clinton did but I'm telling you what Trump is not going to do. They're not going to do that. And if they have to do that, I am going to go attack them. And if the MiraLago summit that you lead with which was just perfect, basically that's what he told she should pay. He said you can solve this problem. And if you solve it you know we will have a good relationship. But if you don't solve it I can solve this problem and you're not going to like the way I do it. And then he served them chocolate cake. This was at the dinner. He excused himself and he went out and he announced that the U.S. had just launched 50 cruise missiles against Syria. Just to kind of underline the point about how the U.S. can solve it. So if we end up attacking North Korea we may end up triggering a second Korean War. And in the first Korean War Americans and Chinese of thousands of each other killed kill each other.

AMT: So what you're outlining is national pride in the populations on both sides. Suspicion and bluster by leaders or one leader that the other one feels has to be addressed. How can the United States and China avoid falling into this trap?

GRAHAM ALLISON: It's a great summary national pride suspicion and blunder. Thucydides had this great line. He said: “What causes war?” He said interests, fear, and honor by which he meant you know pride or demand for respect. So the answer is you have all the dynamics in this case now. But it's also the case and I think if we look back historically only those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it. So there's nothing that requires us to make the same mistakes people made that led to World War One. There's nothing that requires us to make the mistakes that may lead to other wars.

AMT: We're almost out of time but I but I want to pick up on what you're saying because no one wanted the Iraq war either and a whole bunch of people tried to stop the people who could create the war. Now you have a president who has already in his short history in the Oval Office, is not willing to listen to his own advisers. And you have a rising power like China. How likely is it do you think that we could get really close?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Oh. I mean I would say Thucydides he's sitting on the edge of his chair watching and thinkin: “ I see a train wreck coming and I think I would like to tell them guys get real. We also have in the White House somebody who's historically impulsive. So when something comes into his mind or comes into his gut you know outcomes a tweet or outcomes a choice or outcomes.. so that, out could come an order.

AMT: But what you're telling us as well is at a time when everyone's focused on the U.S. and Russia we need to actually shift our gaze to the U.S. and China right now.

GRAHAM ALLISON: We need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Yes that is.

AMT: Graham Allison, it's important to hear what you're thinking. Thank you so much.

GRAHAM ALLISON: Thank you so much for having me and I enjoyed the conversation.

AMT: Graham Allison director of the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He's a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans. His new book is called Destined for War can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap. And he joined us from Boston. Let us know what you think of what he had to say.