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China, the United States and the Thucydides trap

- The rivalry between China and the United States has taken such a leading role on the international stage that it has become one of the main problems of international relations.

China, the United States and the Thucydides trap

The global rivalry between China and the United States has taken such a leading role on the international stage that it can be said that one of the main problems of international relations and foreign policy is the relationship between these two powers. It is a multifaceted and complex competition since both countries are usually neither allies nor rivals.

On the one hand, the US government views mainland China as a rising power aspiring to challenge for world supremacy. However, it does not consider it as an adversary, but rather as a competitor in various areas –such as it is in the economic and technological front or, more importantly, in the field of international influence– and as a partner in others –for example in the commercial sphere, being the number one partner of the American giant and vice versa. Despite this, there are perennial concerns regarding the handling of democracy in the Beijing government and, without a doubt, regarding the accusations of constant violations of human rights.

At the same time, an unstoppable China is gradually approaching the United States, which seemed practically immovable from its place of hegemonic power. Apparently, China is not willing to reduce its ambitions and has a clear objective: to displace Washington from its preponderance in the Pacific. The Asian giant has achieved in recent years the recognition of being an "emerging" or "rising" world power; Getting to position itself as the main economic partner of most countries in the world, including numerous traditional and historical allies of the United States.

Sino-US relations present characteristics that can be intertwined with numerous historical parallels. One of them is the historical Peloponnesian War, in this one, Thucydides (460 BC – 395 BC), an Athenian soldier and chronicler of Ancient Athens, Greece; He participated in such a great event, later recounting in a memorable work written in 400 B.C. under the title of History of the Peloponnesian War (translated in 2015). This war has been justified under the notion of its "inevitability" due to the gradual rise of Athens, which was instilling in this way a growing fear in Sparta. Therefore, the true cause of the conflict is the fact that the Athenians, by becoming powerful and inspiring fear in the Spartans, forced them to unleash war.

The concept or theory known as the "Thucydides Trap" was created by the American political scientist Graham Allison in 2015, with the aim of analyzing the competitive relations between the United States and China (Allison, 2017). However, it is necessary to remember that this is a vast theory that explains the relationship between a declining hegemonic power and another rising power. According to this approach, the tension between the two powers could lead to a world war in which the great power either wins and secures its primacy, or loses and is replaced by the rising power. An extrapolation of such a situation to our present time would be symbolized by a new Athens represented by China, which challenges the declining power of the new Sparta, the United States.

As Thucydides explained that “the objective reality of the impact of a rising power on a ruling power is problem enough” (trans. 2015). But for that matter, in the real world, these objective facts are perceived subjectively, magnifying misperceptions and multiplying miscalculations. When a competitor knows what the real motive of the other is, each action is interpreted in a way that confirms that bias, that is, in one way or another, the steps in the analysis of this competition are first in the mutual identification of competitors, then to know and evaluate each way of acting within the international plane and finally to determine the strategies of how they will operate in defense or search of their objectives.

Furthermore, it is possible to identify a number of layers of core interests on the part of China beginning with the survival of the regime. First of all, regarding the cases of Taiwan and Singapore, we can observe the early training in Marxism that still influences Xi Jinping's worldview, as the Chinese Communist Party has reunited with Marx. But the state Marxism of the first president is an attempt to unify the population behind a nationalist ideology, and not to inspire class struggle in a context in which China has become a global power. Let us remember that China rose to its feet under Mao Zedong, grew rich under Deng Xiaoping, and is gradually becoming powerful under Xi Jinping. Subsequently, in Silicon Valley, world attention was directed to the high-tech sphere as the new battlefront of the US-China competition, inviting us to consider the ramifications of a full-blown technological war as some kind of fight to secure the commanding heights of new technologies that will make or break the economies of the 21st century. Similarly, in Jakarta it was analyzed how the emerging strategic rivalry will greatly affect Southeast Asia, mainly developing countries.

In the midst of this debate, keep in mind that China's leaders have grimly concluded that their own long-held suspicions have been confirmed: the trade war is seen as just one more tool in a comprehensive campaign to contain China. Increasing, the objective metrics on the increase of a State in relation to another, an important factor in the analysis is the subjective perception. Therefore, as national power metrics and best historical data relevant to these metrics are brought together, we are also exploring ways to assess how objective changes are reflected in subjective perceptions of power. Likewise, the Thucydides trap hypothesis makes no claim about a time when war is most likely to occur. The Thucydidean dynamic is present during the ascent, at the point of parity, and after one power has overcome another.

Finally, the variable in this study is a rapid shift in the balance of power (a correlation of forces) between a major ruling power and a rising rival that it might displace due to the fact that it may be in a geographic area or domain. particular. In short, it is inescapable that this is a deeply complex relationship. In fact, even though there are other cases that allow us to establish a parallel with the Peloponnesian War and the confrontational dynamics between two powers, the truth is that the competition between the two States presents unique characteristics to such a degree that it has no historical precedents, for which reason it is hard to know whether the largest economy and oldest continuous democracy, such as the United States, can happily coexist with the second-largest economy and oldest continuous civilization, such as China. Therefore, we must be aware of the debates generated by this complex relationship and, at the same time, contribute to clarifying it in one way or another.


    Allison, G. (2017). Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    Tucídides. (400 a.C. trad. en 2015). Historia de la guerra del Peloponeso. Barcelona: Juventud.

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undefined, SR.. “China, Estados Unidos y la trampa de Tucídides.” CEMERI, 24 sept. 2022,