Avoiding the “Thucydides Trap” in the Indo-Pacific

Intervention at the 8th Sino-US Colloquium of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, The George Washington University

The Indo-Pacific has emerged as the global center of economic gravity.  So refocusing American attention to it makes sense.  But, even though the region’s increased influence at the global level is not political and is only marginally military, the “rebalance” is almost entirely military.  Its  economic element  — TPP — looks like an after-thought premised on denial of the entrenched centrality of China in the regional supply-chain economy.  And the so-called “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia lacks a coherent diplomatic component. 

So  –  not to mince words  –  a focus on Asia makes sense but the way U.S. attention is being shifted there does not.  The “rebalance” will not work.  Far from avoiding the  “Thucydides trap,” it walks right into it.  It is likely to be seen in retrospect as an historic blunder that did not so much deter war as lay the basis for it.

First, a “rebalance” aimed at sustaining American dominance in Asia is military fantasy.  It posits a perpetual American upper hand in a contest with China to control areas adjacent to it and very far away from America.  This is a contest in which China enjoys the inherently decisive advantages of proximity and a defensive mission.  The United States can no more continue to control the near seas of a modernized, powerful China than China  or any other foreign nation can hope to control the seas offshore the United States.  Already, U.S. forces are being forced back to firing positions outside the so-called “first island chain.”

Second, China’s neighbors want American help to hedge against Chinese power even as they strive to reach an accommodation to it.  But the “rebalance” does not enlist these neighbors in a coherent effort to either balance or engage China.  And it doesn’t aggregate their strength to that of the United States to either end. 

If the United States is prepared to take on the task of balancing China’s military power pretty much by itself, why should China’s smaller neighbors make much effort to do so?  If America is prepared to go to war with China over disputes these smaller neighbors espouse but are themselves unprepared to address militarily, why should they seek to settle these disputes or exercise caution in their quarrels with China?  If reliance on U.S. deterrent power leaves these neighbors with no perceived need to do anything but hang tough on territorial claims, what alternative to coercive measures is available to China? 

The most egregious instance of this moral hazard is the Philippines but it is apparent in Japan and Korea as well.  Today’s intra-Asian disputes are a pointed reminder that the war Thucydides wrote about was catalyzed by the quarrels of allies of Sparta and Athens (Megara and Corinth), not by disputes directly between those two great powers.  (Perhaps it’s also relevant that the less risk averse and more belligerent of the two was Athens, the democracy, not Sparta, the autocracy.)

Third, the military antagonism inherent in the “rebalance” and the inevitable Chinese counters to it skew the overall Sino-American relationship toward zero-sum competition.  This entails major opportunity costs.  For example, rather than focusing on building frameworks to serve common interests like the protection of commercial shipping in the heavily trafficked South China Sea, the rebalance promotes the planning of naval maneuvers, blockades, and other forms of warfare there.  Rather than facilitating the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes by the claimants, it embeds these disputes in Sino-American rivalry and promotes their militarization.  Rather than working together to reform or replace outmoded international financial institutions and practices, it presumes that China and America are at cross purposes.  And so forth.

Some degree of military wariness between the United States and China is both natural and prudent but active antagonism is unnecessary and damaging to both.  The U.S. and Chinese armed forces each have a mission to sustain a peaceful order in the space between us.  We need to focus on how to build and buttress stability in the Indo-Pacific region based on the independence and territorial integrity of its smaller states, rather than the hegemony of the United States, China, or both. 

Stability requires a balance in the region grounded in its smaller states’ prosperity and power of self-defense, supplemented –  not replaced  –  by the power of the United States and/or others, including China and Japan.   It demands an emphasis on the resolution of disputes rather than efforts to freeze them, unresolved and ever ready to explode, through military deterrence.  And it necessitates the parallel pursuit of common interests and opportunities by the United States and China, not just efforts by each side separately to mitigate misperceptions and avoid potential conflicts.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.) | Senior Fellow, the Watson Institute, Brown University

Washington, D.C. 

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