Steve Yetiv is Louis I. Jaffe Professor of International Relations at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
North Korea. Trade war. South China Sea. Great power rivalry. Are the United States and China on a path to conflict?
Some people certainly think so in and out of the governments in both capitals. Even a sober thinker such as Harvard professor Graham Allison sees the two countries on a war path, and argues that over the past 2,500 years, rising nations such as China have usually gone to war with the ruling power in the world – the so-called "Thucydides trap."
The North Korea crisis plays into such thinking, especially given North Korea's irresponsible test of a hydrogen bomb, and continuing threats to launch more missiles. China could potentially be drawn into this escalating and serious crisis if Beijing and Washington mismanage their relations. But does deep history and the "Thucydides trap" really inform us today? Is history a good guide?
But the "Thucydides trap" and other historical analogies, while informative, do not apply so well today. A Sino-American war and, in fact, war in general is much less likely now than in past eras, notwithstanding the crisis with North Korea.
First, high levels of trade and commerce are hardly a panacea, as the First World War showed. But they often deter conflict. China and the United States are big trading partners (even if Beijing scores huge trade surpluses), and their interdependence is intense. For instance, a loss of confidence in U.S. Treasuries would immediately hurt China, which holds more than $1-trillion (U.S.) worth of them. Would Washington or Beijing risk war if the economic tailspin felled their leaderships? I doubt it.
Even if they fight over trade, they both value it enough to tread cautiously.
Second, if globalization does not deter war in itself, add nuclear weapons and mix carefully. The "Thucydides trap" occurred almost solely when great powers lacked nuclear weapons. Even Germany under Hitler would have probably been limited if Britain had nuclear weapons. Authoritarian regimes value their leadership above all else and such war would risk their annihilation. Would Beijing risk that?
Third, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker shows that war is much more rare now than in previous centuries, partly as a result of the rise of global norms. The North Korea case is strange but, in general, resorting to war is far less acceptable today than in the time of Pericles, Napoleon or Wilhelm II. We have evolved, even if the 24-hour news cycle suggests otherwise.
Fourth, global communications are light years ahead of where they were in previous centuries. Even as recently as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the superpowers hardly talked. Beijing and Washington talk regularly, instantly and at all levels of government. That matters, especially in helping to contain crises such as with North Korea.
Fifth, China and America are also unique great powers that makes conflict less likely. Unprecedentedly, China is migrating hundreds of millions of people into the middle class. It is obsessed with economics. Even Beijing's aggressive expansion in areas such as the South China Sea is partly about securing energy to fuel growth. That's no excuse for its behaviour but it hardly matches the gross aggression of past rising powers. China's history of isolationism, that prevailed in recent times until Deng Xiaoping's opening to the world in 1978, also militates against entangling conflicts. That is probably true of Washington as well, despite its global role and occasional blunders on foreign policy.
Indeed, the United States is also unique because of its combination of geography, global economic interests and the fact that, while hegemonic, it has not sought territorial expansion largely since the 19th century. Such features distinguish it from most historic great powers and make it less likely to fight China. Meanwhile, its far-flung alliances and key roles in international institutions give it levers of power short of war and also help it to mediate conflicts. That is something U.S. President Donald Trump should understand better and should exercise with North Korea.
Of course, a rising power such as China and a leading country will face tensions, and crises could escalate as history shows. Wars can begin as a result of miscalculations, by accident or through irrational behaviour. Much diplomacy is needed to temper the Sino-American rivalry and to build upon common interests so that they can align better in crises such as North Korea.
But today, unlike in past centuries, many forces work against a great power war, which we underestimate. If the United States and China fear or foresee a "hot" or Cold War, they may take actions that invite it. Let's remember history without assuming that it will repeat itself. Yes, the world faces major security issues such as North Korea that could go wrong, but so much has changed for the better as well.