US versus China: The Thucydides Trap as a Tool in Big Power Rivalry

Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas (National University of Malaysia (UKM) and G25)


Rising tensions between the US and China have generated renewed discourses surrounding the “Thucydides Trap” phenomenon. The notion describes a scenario of rivalry between an established power and a rising one, which often ends in war. President Xi Jinping, in 2013, told a group of Western visitors that the Thucydides Trap must be avoided by “working together”. By 2018, the discourse on this had increased substantially within academic and policy circles, with the focus unsurprisingly being on rising threats to global security resulting from US-China tensions.

These tensions are rooted essentially in both nations’ vested interests in the global economy. The basis for the latest geopolitical struggle is as follows:

  1. Protectionism: A US-China trade/tariff war manifested in barriers to imports and exports.
  2. Unilateral use of US-based legal remedies (such as Section 301 of the US Trade Act, 1974), instead of the WTO for dispute resolution.
  3. US request for Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou’s extradition.
  4. Recent disagreements within the US defence policy administration, manifest in the resignation of US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
  5. Cultural impasse: Mistrust between civilian and military leaders in both US and China has escalated insecurity in the public mindsets of both nations.
  6. US public accusations of China for the loss of jobs and stagnating salaries.
  7. American public perceptions of China’s economic might as a threat to US international stature.


These tensions are driven both by Trump/US interests as well as global dynamics in general. The current trade turbulence is predominantly Trump-driven, whereas the deeper tension is structural. The structural changes initiated mainly by China are not perceived as peaceful. The following constitute a few of these structural changes:

  1. Xi Jinping’s assertive strategy in the wake of the global financial crisis. This includes more control over the military, increased defence spending, the militarisation of the South China Sea, a crackdown on internal dissent (e.g. Xinjiang and the Uighurs), and the Belt and Road Initiative (as a way of becoming more involved in the domestic economics and politics of interested nations).
  2. China’s detainment of two Canadians in response to the arrest of Huawei’s CFO. This act has developed more mistrust of American businesses still seeking cooperation with China.
  3. China’s tactical coordination with Russia in the wake of the latter’s arrest of US “spy” Paul Whelan.
  4. China’s use of the BRI to preposition itself for military bases in Africa, Latin American and South Asia. This is seen as China’s assertive maritime strategy.
  5. Huge increase in China’s defence spending (7.5% increase in the latest national budget release).


Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia, are economically dependent on China and Japan. The realignment of great power relations in the Indo-Pacific is causing geopolitical uncertainty in Southeast Asia, but this does not mean that Southeast Asia or ASEAN is bracing for conventional war between the US and China. Rather, the scenario in the next few years will be in the form of economic stressors instigated by the US-China trade war.

For Malaysia, China’s infrastructure financing through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is of concern. Even though it can improve domestic and regional connectivity, Malaysia’s domestic economic situation compelled Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to reconsider China-backed projects. The East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and the natural gas pipeline project in Sabah are two such major projects. Rather than taking an aggressive stand against China, Mahathir couched the matter around the massive financial scandal (1MDB) that has left Malaysia’s economy in shambles. Although Mahathir said that the infrastructure deals made between China and his predecessor were lopsided, in favour of China, he stated convincingly that even China would not want to see Malaysia going bankrupt.  


Should Malaysia be concerned with the Thucydides Trap?

To address this question, we need to consider Asian international relations through the prism of Asian history. First, contrary to what Graham Allison said last year in a talk about his book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap”? (2017), Thucydides is not the “father and founder of history”. Herodotus is. Secondly, there are civilisation-specific approaches for conceptualising strategy and the origins of war. European political history has demonstrated that democracy, sovereignty and human rights are values that wars were fought over. In the context of 21st century geopolitics, the Thucydides Trap discourse posits that war is initiated by the “resident” power (US), out of fear of a “rising power” (China). This is contrary to what is recorded in Thucydides’ expose, The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Thucydides clearly states that the Spartans did not want war against the rising Athenians. Instead, the Corinthians, who were rivals of Athens, stirred up the Spartans into bellicosity. Sparta’s king Archidamus was himself against war, but his people became too riled up. Eventually, Athens was struck with the plague, which killed their key leader, Pericles. The Athenians were in disarray, and so Sparta won the war.

The independent states of Hellas (akin to the independent nations of ASEAN) lived in peace. Their leaders formed a web of friendship, just as ASEAN nations do. When Pericles, the key peacemaker, died, peace was threatened. Without a leader, the Athenians stirred up unrest which eventually imploded on Athens. Even though Sparta eventually won, there was no “trap”. The resident power, Sparta, did not initiate war. The rising power, Athens (which was eventually subdued), was in fact, the instigator of the war.

It is erroneous to transport this scenario to the current global security context of US-China tensions. The Thucydides Trap discourse is more of an academic exercise based on an imagined reality. It is a strategic framework that has been cleverly adapted to describe current geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic manoeuvres. We must look at China’s rise independent of the “trap” lens. This alternate view would dispel notions that a war between the US and China is inevitable.

In 20th century history, resident powers did not subdue rising powers. In 1904, Japan was a rising power while Russia was the established power. Russia did not preempt Japan. Japan instead launched a surprise attack on Russia. In 1941 Japan again was the rising power. She launched an attack on US’s Pearl Harbor, not the other way around. Similarly, in the 1930s, Germany was the rising power. France, Russia and England did not move against it.

US as the resident power would like the global security community to think that a rising China is a threat, to be subdued at all costs. The dynamics of American foreign policy demonstrates US provocative rhetoric against the “rising China” phenomenon. This demonstrates imperialistic state behaviour, which is unacceptable to East and Southeast Asian nations. In reality, the obvious threat exists in the economic sphere rather than in the military domain. The current trade war between the two big powers points to the unlikelihood of any nation being caught in a Thucydides Trap. Both powers have not been on a conventional warpath so far. Rather, rhetorical statements alluding to it is the real strategy, created to deflect from the damaging war on the economic front.

Over the decades, through a Western historical lens, the writings of Thucydides have been misinterpreted and cleverly manipulated to instil fear in rising powers. In the post-Cold War scenario, both the US and China have used the Thucydides Trap construct as a strategic tactic to maintain a balance of power. In many ways, we can see it being used as a win-win construct and not a zero-sum game.

For Malaysia, and many in Southeast Asia, China will continue to be engaged economically, and as a security provider. China is not viewed as a rising threat to be feared and avoided. Rather, she is to be engaged as much as possible. But there are conditions to this engagement, with the primary goals being about safeguarding small-state sovereignty and national interest.

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