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"U.S. and China Should Avoid 'Thucydides Trap'"

Honored Guests: Richard Rosecrance (right) and Harvard Professor of Modern History Charles Maier walk to their meeting on the grounds of the Government guest house in Beijing.
Photo by Lin Yang

"U.S. and China Should Avoid 'Thucydides Trap'"

Newsletter Article, Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Spring 2011

Author: Sharon Wilke, Associate Director of Communications

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security


When China’s President Hu Jintao visited the United States in January, observers noted that the meetings between Hu and President Obama were treading carefully around what Belfer Center Director Graham Allison calls the “‘Thucydides Trap’—that deadly combination of calculation and emo­tion that, over the years, can turn healthy rivalry into antagonism or worse” (New York Times, Jan. 22, 2011).

In January, Allison and Belfer Center col­leagues Richard Rosecrance and Joseph S. Nye met in Beijing with their counterparts in the China Development Research Foundation to continue the group’s discussion of U.S.­China relations and efforts to prevent conflict between the rising and traditional powers. Rosecrance directs Harvard Kennedy School’s Project on U.S.­China Relations.

At the conclusion of the three­day round­table, Rosecrance said both sides conceded that China and the United States were on sep­arate tracks and no full resolution of their competing positions was possible in the short run. Areas discussed included U.S. debt and depreciation of Chinese holdings of the U.S. dollar, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and China’s apparent belief that Taiwan falls within China’s defense perimeter.

“The rise in China’s power today inspires misunderstandingif notfear,”Rosecrance said, “and there is as yet no clear answer as to how the rest of the world will or should respond.”

Commenting on the growing interdepen­dence between the China and U.S. economies, Allison said in the 2009 book Power and Restraint (Rosecrance and Gu Guoliang), that this situation could reach the point where “official capital flight or trade embargoes could be so damaging that they would no longer be economic options.” The acronym “MADE (mutual assured destruction of the economy),”he said,“could take its place in the lexicon with MAD (mutual assured destruc­tion of the society).”

In a January (2011) BBC interview, Nye voiced a word of caution on China’s rising power: “[T]he [U.S.­China] relationship will remain difficult as long as the Chinese suffer from hubris based on a mistaken belief in American decline.”


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Wilke, Sharon. "U.S. and China Should Avoid 'Thucydides Trap'." Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, Spring 2011.

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