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The notion of ‘Thucydides’ Trap’ claims that the danger of war increases when a rising state approaches or overtakes a ruling state’s power. It offers the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta some 2,500 years ago as an analogy for understanding the cause behind rising tension between contemporary China and the United States. How helpful is this analogy and its monocausal explanation of war? How strong is this explanation’s validity, such as with respect to its designation of ‘rising’ and ‘ruling’ states, and its selection and interpretation of past instances of interstate power shift and war? Thucydides’ own account tells us that there are multiple, concurrent pathways to war. Human agency, especially people’s capacity to learn from the past, should be considered in addition to structural constraints. Interstate power shifts are neither necessary nor sufficient for war to occur; they represent just one of several factors creating a combination that endangers peace. In addressing contemporary Sino-American relations, we should consider how other variables such as timing, location, alliance commitments, human emotions and misjudgements, and racial identity can mitigate or exacerbate the effects of power shifts on the likelihood of war.
Steve Chan is College Professor of Distinction at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he teaches political science. His research interests encompass theories of international relations (such as democratic peace, power transition) and political economy (such as defence economics, developmental states, economic sanctions), with a focus on East Asia. He has published 19 books and about 180 articles and chapters. His most recent books are Thucydides’ Trap? Historical Interpretation, Logic of Inquiry, and the Future of Sino-American Relations (University of Michigan Press, 2020); Trust and Distrust in Sino-American Relations (Cambria, 2017); China’s Troubled Waters? Maritime Disputes in Theoretical Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2016); Enduring Rivalries in the Asia-Pacific (Cambridge, 2013); and Looking for Balance: China, the United States, and Power Balancing in East Asia (Stanford University Press, 2012). He has previously received the Karl W Deutsch award given by the International Studies Association, the Distinguished Scholar award given by this Association’s Foreign Policy Section, and the Marinus Smith award in recognition of his teaching at the University of Colorado.
This event is jointly organised by the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia and Pacific Affairs.