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Graham Perry
Graham Perry
Experienced Arbitration Lawyer | China & Chinese Business Affairs | Public Speaker/Lecturer.


CHINA AND THE UNITED STATES ARE HEADING TOWARD A WAR NEITHER WANTS. The reason is Thucydides’s Trap, a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one. This phenomenon is as old as history itself. About the Peloponnesian War that devastated ancient Greece, the historian Thucydides explained: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

Over the past 500 years, these conditions have occurred sixteen times. War broke out in twelve of them. Today, as an unstoppable China approaches an immovable America the seventeenth case looks grim. Unless China is willing to scale back its ambitions or Washington can accept becoming number two in the Pacific, a trade conflict, cyberattack, or accident at sea could soon escalate into all-out war.

In Destined for War, the eminent Harvard scholar Graham Allison explains why Thucydides’s Trap is the best lens for understanding U.S.-China relations in the twenty-first century. Through uncanny historical parallels and war scenarios, he shows how close we are to the unthinkable. Yet, stressing that war is not inevitable, Allison also reveals how clashing powers have kept the peace in the past — and what painful steps the United States and China must take to avoid disaster today

More recently Prof Allison spent time in Beijing meeting with Xi Jinping (4 hours) and here follows a Prof Allison interview with the South China Morning Post

I repeat the interview without comment.



Professor, I want to start by asking about your trip to China in March and your conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Were there any fresh insights you made on this trip? And what was your sense of how China views the state of US-China relations?


I had a great opportunity in this recent trip over the course of nine days to get to see not only President Xi Jinping but [Foreign Minister] Wang Yi and almost all of their foreign policy leadership. And it was not simply for speed meetings but most of these were one-on-one meetings with extended conversations. So I would take away three big points, I think.

First point, there’s no question that Xi Jinping is in charge, that he feels in command, that he is the same Xi Jinping that I described in my book Destined for War, where essentially I channelled or tried to channel [former prime minister of Singapore] Lee Kuan Yew with his assessment of the man. He is hugely ambitious, very confident and determined to make sure that China becomes everything that it can be. In one line: he is committed to “make China great again”. And he believes that he is going to do this during his period as the leader of China. So I would say all the rumour mills about him feeling anxious or distressed or concerned or insecure, I saw no evidence of that.

Secondly, what happened at San Francisco in the summit between Xi Jinping and [US] President Joe Biden was not simply just another one of these meetings. But it was a significant event in which the two leaders spent four hours talking privately and candidly to each other – without the glare of the press. Those of us observing from a distance do not know what they said to each other. And that is exactly what should happen in good diplomacy when the leaders talk privately and candidly about the most delicate and dangerous issues.

But what we can observe, since San Francisco, is that a number of trend lines that were going in one direction have had a pretty sharp break and they’re going in another direction. For example, the number of close military encounters in the Taiwan Strait, which are dangerous incidents as an example, but there’s a half-dozen more as well.

So what I think happened there, the right way to characterise it, is that they did not simply put a floor under what had been a rapidly deteriorating relationship. They actually laid a foundation, a pretty stable foundation, on which to build a more constructive relationship.

And essentially, the two leaders embraced frameworks that are substantially compatible. Frameworks in which the relationship will have three components. There’ll be fierce competition. The parties really will be fierce Thucydidean rivals. Secondly, communication. They will communicate continuously, candidly, at the levels of leader-to-leader and trusted agent-to-trusted agent, and then their lieutenants. And thirdly, the two countries will cooperate, and especially in areas where each nation’s survival requires a degree of cooperation from the other. So, I think that is a very solid foundation going forward. I think therefore, I’m feeling more optimistic about 2024.


In a recent interview, you said that if Thucydides were still alive, he would probably say that China and the US are still following the playbook that leads to war, despite the efforts made by both sides. What do you think both sides should be doing right now that they aren’t? Why are the Chinese and American leaders failing to prevent a military conflict that would have certainly disastrous consequences for both sides?


That is a topic that requires a lecture – but let me try to be brief. The primary reason why I think Thucydides would say that at the largest level we’re still more or less on track is that the US and China are indeed classic Thucydidean rivals. Seventy-five per cent of that is baked into the reality of a situation in which on the one hand, Xi Jinping and his colleagues are determined that China should be all that it can be – and very understandably so. But on the other hand, the US as a colossal ruling power is committed to the structure of the international order, including the Asian order, that it created in the aftermath of World War II, and it believes has provided a stability that has enabled all the parties to focus on their own development and to deliver to their citizens greater improvements in their well-being than in any analogous period in their history.

So, consider the two sides of this again briefly. One of the points Xi Jinping made in discussing this issue with our group was to recall a conversation with US president Barack Obama. Obama had noted that if the Chinese became as wealthy as Americans and if they behaved like Americans in consuming energy and emitting greenhouse gases, the biosphere would become uninhabitable for everybody.

So, he then looked at us and paused as if to say: so you would imagine we should be happy being only one-fifth as wealthy as Americans? He then went on to explain that China is going to be determined to modernise in its own way and without the negative effects of the greenhouse gases. But he is confident that Chinese are pretty smart, pretty hard-working. So why shouldn’t they have half the per capita GDP of Americans? And if they did, do the arithmetic. With four times as many people, that would mean that they would have a GDP twice as large as the US. And with a GDP twice as large, they could have a defence budget twice as large, an intelligence budget twice as large, economic leverage twice as large.

On the other hand, since that is only 75 per cent of the picture, 25 per cent of the picture is the human agency: what leaders in China do, what leaders in the US do. So, as I argue in the book, if American and Chinese leaders and their governments and societies could study and learn the lessons of the four of the 16 cases that were not war, and even the lessons from the cases that led to war but that included mistakes that they do not have to make, could they together find some way to have a rivalry that at the same time, stopped short of war?

And could they manage a rivalry that continues for another 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years? Maybe. And if they could, then each of the societies would have a chance to show which of the two societies can better deliver, which type of government can better deliver what citizens want, and I would say that would be a good long-term outlook.

And so I would be hopeful in that regard because I am a congenital optimist. I think Thucydides looking at it would say 75 per cent is already baked in, governments tend to be short-sighted even though there is some promise in what Biden and Xi did in San Francisco, he would still be sceptical.


China often complains about the fact that they sit down with the US leader, they agree on a number of things, and then because the Chinese system is a top-down system, Xi Jinping is able to implement most of what he promised in these meetings. And because of the system in the US that prevents anyone from having absolute decision-making power – the checks and balances that the system has here – it is often more difficult for the US to deliver.

In your opinion, how do you manage the expectations on both sides regarding the potential actions of the individual parties in this relationship? And ultimately, is it feasible to prevent conflict between political systems that are fundamentally opposite and incompatible?


I think [it is] quite complicated because there is no doubt as you say that we have two quite different political systems. I think at one stage Trump may even have expressed admiration for the adversary system in which you can be the boss and you basically tell people this is the way it is and they do not have much choice but to go along with it.

So yes, you have two very different political systems and there is no question that after Biden agrees to something, many of those things are not things he can do by decree or by simply command. We have a division of power between the Congress and the president, and then we live in a more legalised system with a Supreme Court. So that for sure is a drawback.

I think for both of the parties, they tend to, even after they’ve agreed to do something, then come to look back on it and claim that the other party is not really living up to the spirit of what was agreed to as opposed to the details. So I think there are complaints on both sides with respect to this.

Xi welcomes ‘old friend’ Putin to Beijing, affirms strength of China-Russia bond

The Americans, for example, will say that well, we thought we had reached an agreement with respect to Chinese support for Russian industry and especially parts of the industry that support the military or security complex. And so is China actually providing substantial support for Russia’s economy in the war? Yes, in terms of trade and even technologies, but where is the line between that and providing military assistance? Well, that can be fuzzy.

So then the parties act like they had a general agreement, but they hadn’t got the details clarified. And then you interpret it your way and I interpret it my way. So I guess I would say there are maybe two or three ways that expectations that an agreement has been reached actually are not fulfilled – some of them because of wanting to have a good feeling about an agreement at the abstract level, but you did not really agree on the details. At another level, what you pointed out that even if Biden agrees to something, he cannot actually execute it in a way that Xi can. And often, even if Xi agrees to something, he may not really mean he wants to do that within their system and then he will blame the implementation or execution as well.


About Russia, you have been saying quite often that China has formed an informal alliance with Russia. How do you think this affects the American perception of risk regarding China’s military intentions, especially considering that [President Vladimir] Putin’s Russia is a military power that is significantly less open to dialogue with the US?


I think this is one of the difficulties that China has in this – I’ve written about the China-Russia alignment as the “most consequential, undeclared alliance in the world”. Many Americans have trouble accepting this – because it is so unnatural. When you look at history, China and Russia should be natural adversaries. When he was secretary of defence, James Mattis and I used to argue about this. He said, no, no: they are natural adversaries with a long border, disputed territory, a history of wars, conflicting cultures. For every reason in history, they should be adversaries.

But I think thanks to Xi Jinping’s brilliant diplomacy, and to some extent Putin’s as well, they have managed to overcome the forces of nature to create this unnatural alignment. And some part of that is built on the fact that the US is, for both of the parties, a major adversary. And in geopolitics, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

So Xi has managed a version almost reverse of Kissinger’s trilateral diplomacy. During the Cold War, with Nixon and Kissinger’s opening of China, the agile trilateral diplomacy allowed the US to get closer to both China and the Soviet Union than they were to each other.

And today by making both China and Russia as our adversaries, we’ve actually helped nudge the parties together for their cooperation which I think has become very thick. So compare the China-Russia relationship, for example, with the US-India relationship? Which is operationally more consequential?


How should the US perceive the risk if China and Russia grow more aligned militarywise?


When the two militaries – and two presidents – compare threat assessments, each sees the US as the principal obstacle and security threat to themselves. They share a common objective which is to undermine what they call the “unipolar” or American hegemonic order in favour of a multipolar order in which each of them become significant poles.

They do joint military planning and joint military exercises. They do joint weapons development in a number of variants. China is a major purchaser of Russian armaments, and especially the most advanced armaments.

Graham Allison (left) meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing in March. Photo: Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in Los Angeles

So imagine a report card on alliances and alignments with the dozen areas in which nations cooperate or compete: from meetings between leaders and threat assessments to arms sales and weapons development and military exercises. Scoring what has happened over the last decade-and-a-half on that sheet would find a remarkable increase in the alignment between China and Russia.

From an American defence perspective, planners now have to ask the question: if Russia is engaged in a major war against Ukraine and if the US is focused on that, what opportunity might that create for China? To consider that, if it acted at the same time, the US would have to split its attention to two screens and would have to allocate its carriers to two fronts and allocate its aircraft to two fronts. And actually, it’s even more interesting right now because you have a Middle East on fire as well. So, again, from an American defence point of view, having to think about three problems at the same time is pretty challenging.


A part of your book suggested that the American leadership clarify its vital interests and strategies, and that the absence of a coherent, sustainable strategy is a reliable route to failure. What are some of Washington’s priorities that you think can be de-prioritised? And at this point, do you feel the Biden administration has a clear long-term China strategy?


So first, does the Biden team have a coherent strategy for trying to meet the China challenge? I believe the answer is yes. And what is that strategy? It is, I think, the American version of the framework that Xi Jinping describes as the spirit of San Francisco. The three components: fierce competition, deep communication, and serious cooperation. And to what end? To the end of a long-term, peaceful competition, in which over a quarter century, or a half-century, we will see which of the two systems more successfully delivers what people want.

So that is the long-term strategy and the pillars of that are first what the Biden team calls the revitalising of American competitiveness. That is the industrial policy, the [Chips and Science Act], trying to bring back manufacturing to encourage innovation. And secondly, there is the construction of a web of alliances and alignments, so that is Aukusthe Quad, strengthening of treaties with Japan and South Korea and Australia and the Philippines. So, a counterbalancing alliance in the Asian context. And then thirdly, this combination of competition and cooperation all at the same time. So that is, I think, what the Biden team thinks that they’re doing now.

Your harder question is well, but how about the rest of the world? The US is not simply an Asian power and not simply focused on China as the primary threat or the pacing challenge. It also faces the urgent challenge of Putin’s war in Ukraine and a really dangerous situation in the Middle East.

The US military is the greatest military force in the world. But if its capabilities and attention have to be divided into three components, then what? Facing a China that is focused on just one set of scenarios, namely the Taiwan Strait or the peripheral waters around Taiwan or their neighbourhood, and a Russia focused on Ukraine, not to mention Iran and its proxies surrounding Israel, yikes. The hardest problem American foreign policy will face over the next decade will be to try to pay less attention to some things to pay more attention to others.

Now, how could this work? Well, if the current efforts to rebuild the Nato alliance and get the Europeans to pick up a larger part of the responsibility for their own security works then the European claim on American resources and time and focus could be substantially reduced. Whether that’ll happen, I don’t know – but perhaps with superior diplomacy, it could.

One can also ask how this global chessboard looks from the perspective of Chinese strategists. Some undoubtedly are thinking: Americans suffer from ADD (attention deficit disorder). So just give them a few minutes and they’ll be focused elsewhere – on Ukraine or Gaza or wherever.

And then there’s the November election. So undoubtedly, some Chinese strategists are hoping that the US will become sufficiently distracted either with ourselves – and we might well do that after the 2024 election – or in other parts of the world that we will pay less attention to China. And the less attention the US pays to China, the more breathing room they have to pursue their core strategy, which has been working pretty well.


In your book, you discuss intensified competition for scarce resources: “When a growing economy forces the rising power to go further to secure important products, including some that are under the control or protection of the dominant power, competition can sometimes turn into a scramble for resources.”

Washington argues that it is expanding sanctions on China’s access to semiconductors to keep the technologies out of weapons that could be used against Americans in the future. How does this situation compare to the sanctions that led to war between Japan and the US in the 1940s, and what lessons should both sides draw from that to understand the current competition for products such as semiconductors?


It certainly is the case that historically, a number of Thucydidean rivalries have come to focus on resources. And certainly I don’t think we can study what happened in the run-up to Pearl Harbour too carefully because I think that reminds us that if we forced a competitor to choose between sure strangulation over a period of six months or a year and taking a wild chance, even a chance to win a war. Remember – the designer of it believed Japan would not win if it became a long war.

Nonetheless, it can become rational for an adversary to choose war. So we can certainly look at that case. Now I think in current tech rivalry, of which the chip rivalry is right in the front, but you’re going to see something similar in other advanced technologies. We already see the US is determined – the Biden administration is determined – it is going to try to maintain as large a lead as it can over China in each of the frontier technologies, so for AI, for semiconductors or quantum for synthetic biology and genomics.

And I think in none of these can the US be able to deny China some version of the capability. It may just be a generation or two behind, depending on how substantial the US advance will be. The other thing that we’ve seen is that where the US has tried to maintain a qualitative advantage, in fact because the Chinese are pretty smart and pretty hard-working and are turning out about 10 times as many STEM graduates every year than the US, so lo and behold, they’ll pretty soon catch up and then they may be even [take the lead].

So if you look at the EV world currently, Tesla has been the most amazing EV company in the world and it is certainly the most innovative and the most efficient and is the dominant EV supplier in the US. But in China, where you have a much fiercer competition for EV companies, the company that Warren Buffett backed, BYD, is actually now, at least at the lower-end markets, taking a big part of the market share away from Tesla. It is even the biggest supplier currently in China.

My bet would be that the tech rivalry will be fierce but it will still not be to the point that either that the US would be able to strangle China’s opportunity to build its own, or develop its own, or to find other sources.

Again, the features of the US-China rivalry is that that is happening in a globalised economy. There are many other potential sources of almost every item the US is trying to constrain. So when one considers loopholes in sanctions, companies’ agility in designing around constraints, and alternative sources of supply, the US efforts will delay but not strangle China’s efforts on these fronts. Indeed, my research group charted the number of chips that China bought from Nvidia last year – after the US imposed the ban. The number went up. So my bet is that this will be just another dimension of the race.

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