In recent years, especially since the beginning of this decade, the term “Thucydides trap” (between China as a rising power and U.S. as an established one) has gained increasing currency among policymakers, advisers, and China experts in Western research institutes and think tanks. The fear is that as its power increases, China will eventually choose to challenge or even overturn the existing international order that has contributed so much to its rapid rise, making a war between China and the U.S. likely.
These worries and concerns are not without basis, and nor do they represent a bias against China, despite what some may claim. After all, the long history of modern international relations since the Treaty of Westphalia is, in a way, the history of the rise and fall of great powers, nearly always accompanied by bloody wars. Peaceful transitions of power or hegemony have been far and few between; even the example of Britain and U.S. was not as peaceful as is often claimed. In the case of China, the prospect of peaceful transition looks particularly dim. It is a country that is as politically, culturally and institutionally different from the U.S. as the U.S. and Britain were similar. In so many respects, China seems to be America’s opposite. If there is anything they do share, it is the aspiration to be the world’s preeminent power. Nor does China’s behavior in recent years help much. It is viewed as increasingly assertive or even aggressive in the way it defines its core interests and in its approaches to the East and South China Seas disputes. As its power grows, China is becoming more outspoken about its interests and more prepared to defend them forcefully.