The idea of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ has now established itself quite firmly in the journalistic mind as the defining dynamic of relations between the USA and China; a clear example of the power of the name of ‘Thucydides’, and the ways in which a meme can be created and disseminated in the age of social media. It’s entirely understandable that some people in China are therefore starting to pay a little attention to the topic; I reported on the first stirrings a year or so back (The Tao of Thucydides), and there is now an interesting article on news.xinhuanet.com, taken from ChinaDaily: Thucydides Trap Not Etched In Stone. I’m grateful to Joseph Cotterill (@jsphctrl) for the reference, and for the information that 修西得底斯 (Xiūxīdédǐsī) = Thucydides, 希罗多德 (Xīluōduōdé) = Herodotus and 色诺芬 (Sènuòfēn) = Xenophon. Googling 修西得底斯 produces over 690,000 results; true, most of the first hundred or so are just dictionary definitions, but if Google Translate is to be trusted it does look as if there are some potentially interesting discussions, even if a lot of them seem to be focused on the Thucydides Trap rather than anything more original.
This new article likewise doesn’t have anything much to say about Thucydides (characterised as a “Greek historian and philosopher”), and seems to take it for granted that he does indeed promote such a theory of a rising power making war inevitable because of the fear it inspires in the established power. What the article does offer is quite an entertaining, and not at all unreasonable, critique of the way that the meme is deployed in order to put all responsibility onto China, as it is used to imply that the rising power is always aggressive and seeking to overturn the existing order. “The Thucydides Trap has become a catchword for many commentators because they want to put China in a disadvantageous position and allow the US to occupy the historical and moral high ground.” That may have been true of Athens, but the anonymous author notes that there are other examples where it’s the declining power who opens hostilities; Western scholars ought to shift their focus in that direction, rather than seeing everything in terms of Chinese ambition and expansion. The US is already, through fear, exerting itself in the Pacific, which risks making the Thucydides Trap a reality even though China is doing all it can to avoid conflict; we should instead be hoping for a ‘Xuncius Breakthrough’, named after the C4 BCE philosopher, who argued that “a set of well-planned manners or actions, as opposed to selfish designs, can help avoid conflicts and facilitate cooperation.”
The general tendency seems to be to accept the existence of the Thucydides Trap (and certainly to suggest that it is shaping current Chinese policy, attempting to reassure the Americans that China does not seek confrontation) while questioning its deterministic nature – and above all seeking to return to what could actually be seen as a more Thucydidean reading (though not much is made of this in the article, presumably because Thucydides simply doesn’t carry so much authority in Chinese discourse) in which it is the dynamics of the relationship between the two powers, not the actions of just one of them, that leads to war. It’s interesting as a first (to the best of my knowledge) step in offering a Chinese critique of the idea and its power within Western IR discourse – with the suggestion that discourse alone (that is to say, trying to reassure the US and trying to argue that the Trap can be evaded) is unlikely to be enough – and it will be interesting to see if the ‘Xuncius Breakthrough’ achieves any sort of cultural lift-off. I fear not, or at least not in the West; focusing on alternative readings of Thucydides, whose work is of course vastly more complex and sophisticated than the ‘Thucydides Trap’ meme admits, might be a better option.