USA and China ‘on a collision course for war’

Best of enemies? China’s Xi may see Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” as a threat.

The US and Chinese presidents will meet this week. Relations between the two countries have soured recently. Now one expert has warned that deeper historical forces are driving them to war.

The two presidents have both promised to restore their nations’ greatness. They both speak highly of their own leadership abilities. And they both view each other as the main obstacle to their ambitions.

This week, Donald Trump will meet Xi Jinping for the first time. The world will watch nervously. The relationship between the USA and China is arguably the most important of the 21st century — and since Trump’s inauguration, it has deteriorated rapidly.

Trump has been belligerent towards China, especially on economic policy. On Thursday he tweeted that he expected a “very difficult” meeting. In an interview with the Financial Times this morning, he warned that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.” Meanwhile China has reportedly moved nuclear-armed missiles to within range of the U.S.

Now one expert suggests this is just a small part of a more alarming story. In a new book, Harvard political science professor Graham Allison argues that historical precedent suggests the two sides are heading for an armed confrontation.

In Destined for War, Allison warns of “the Thucydides trap” — a recurring phenomenon where rising powers disrupt dominant ones, leading to conflict. He cites a range of historical examples, including the destructive war between Athens and Sparta and the first world war. And even when war has been avoided, he says, the changing dynamic has required “huge, painful adjustments in actions and attitudes” on both sides.

In recent decades China’s share of global economic output has overtaken that of the USA. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has previously said the USA and China will fight in the South China Sea within a decade. And a number of short-term crises, for example over trade, Taiwan or North Korea, could prompt a war.

“We are certain to see confrontations between China and the USA in the years ahead,” Allison wrote in The Washington Post. “What is in doubt is whether the leaders can manage them without escalating to war.”

Dire war-ning

He is right, say some. War between nuclear armed powers may seem inconceivable, but so did the first world war in the early 20th century. Rising states inevitably become more entitled. The dominant states they threaten become fearful and insecure — as Trump’s election shows. Eventually a point arrives where both sides refuse to negotiate.

History is not destiny, others say. There are exceptions to Allison’s rule. In a globalised world we better understand what our adversaries want and can take steps to avoid catastrophe. In a nuclear age the stakes are far too high to go to war. The two sides are simply acting in their own economic interests — and war would be dreadful for everyone.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever feel threatened by someone else’s success?
  2. Will the US and China go to war?


  1. Re-write this story in your own words — using no more than five sentences.
  2. Work in pairs. One of you research and write a one-page policy paper outlining five things the USA wants from its relationship with China. The other do the same for China’s relationship with the USA. Return to class and discuss: can the two sides have a constructive relationship?

Some People Say...

“History never repeats itself — but it does rhyme.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Trump has adopted strong rhetoric on China, accusing it of killing American jobs and “ripping us off”. He also spoke with Taiwan’s president, which no other US president has done for decades. China tested a new missile in February. China’s power is growing, and major shifts in global or regional power have often brought wars before.
What do we not know?
What issue might cause a crisis between China and the USA, and whether either side would be willing to risk war.
What do people believe?
Allison and several other experts think a Taiwanese bid for independence is the most likely source of conflict, as losing Taiwan could threaten China’s entire regime. But perhaps the threat of nuclear weapons would deter rational leaders from going to war— as it did during the cold war.

Word Watch

Xi will visit Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Thursday and Friday.
Trump has attacked China for devaluing its currency and its military build-up in the South China Sea. He has threatened to impose tariffs on Chinese imports. And he has cast doubt on the longstanding US policy of acknowledging that the Chinese government views Taiwan as part of China.
An Athenian historian who said the Peloponnesian War of the 5th century BCE happened because Athens’s rise threatened Sparta. The war weakened both great city-states.
In the past 500 years, Allison says, rising powers have disrupted dominant ones 16 times. It has led to war 12 times.
In economics the quantity of goods and services produced.
Since 1980 the US share has fallen from 22% to 16%. China’s has grown from 2% to 18%.
A major reason why Japan fought the USA during the second world war.
North Korea
A second Korean war or the fall of North Korea’s regime may lead to US and Chinese troops clashing, for example if they both try to secure loose nuclear material.


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