Destined for War

Posted on 28/01/2020, in Book.


JFK thinks he is managing the Cuba crisis but historians have found we were more close to a non-happy ending than we thought: There are more than 10 uncontrollable events that would lead to a nuclear war. This recalls the Thucydides’s statement:

It was the rise of Athens and the fear that instilled in Sparta that made the war inevitable.

From the 16 cases in history, when a rising power is challenging the ruling one, 12 of them leads to a war. China and U.S. are more close to a hard conflicts based on the historical evidence, especially the nation as well as its leader shall similar claim of interests: Make the country great again.

There will be four major discussion in the following chapters:

  1. How China rises as a super power?
  2. What are some historical lessons for Thucydides’s Trap?
  3. How are recent interactions benchmarking the relation to historical Thucydides’s Trap?
  4. What takes to avoid the war?

Part I: The Rise of China

The biggest player in the history of the world

Lee Kuan Yew spent his whole life learning China and deeply believed that although in the 21st century the world still in a balanced situation, China is going to displace the old balance as the biggest player in the history of the world. The author starts by sharing some stunning economic measures where China has already passed the US or is going to. Then he turns to concrete examples of China’s proceeding in construction, education, innovation, and military forces. He also got alerted by the fact that China is already using its super economic power to balance the world (i.e., economic instrument to achieve political/geo-economical/international relations interests). China has been bypassing IMF/WB/G7 by building its new orders: One Belt and One Road (OBOR) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Part II: Lessons from the History

This chapter went through some of the 16 historical cases where the rising power and ruling power faced structural conflicts and ended up in wars.

Athens vs. Sparta

There are three words Thucydides used to depict the dynamics leading to the Peloponnesian War: Interest, fear, and honor. National interests are plain enough. But the word fear is his one-word reminder that not all factors are coming from the structural reality of conflicts – people are influenced by emotion easily and often fuel misperceptions and exaggerate dangers. The last word is an honor. This sounds pretentious but depicts the historical path that has been affecting conservatively: The fact that Megara and Corinth are the alias of Sparta did not excuse them from not showing the right defense.

Five Hundred Years

The author picked up 5 cases in the last five hundred years, and we can sometimes see trade conflicts could escalate into a war (Japan vs. the US in the mid-twentieth century). Sometimes the rising power is thinking of war to advance its domestic agenda (German vs. France in the mid-nineteenth century), and in the early days, naval rivals could propel the national government to bloody wars (England vs. the Dutch Republic in mid to late seventeenth centuries).

Britain vs.Germany

Britain and Germany were stacking over the Dreadnought right before WWI – it is the reflection of the conflicts as well as one major driver of the World War. Before the arm race, Britain was the leading power and maintained its dominant naval advantage over the second and third countries (France and Russia at that time). Russia’s fleet was defeated by Japan and Britain also witness its own falling in the tension of dealing with global affairs. However, it cannot bear entire Europe falls into one single power (German), so it gives up its long-last isolation policy and allays with France and Russia.

On the other hand, German thought it was late in the colonization, and without recognition from Britain and especially its navy, it is not possible to be one of the major countries. As Britain politicians pointed out, at the end of the day, whether or not German wants to lead the world is not essential, only the fact that its navy is blooming matters – it will change the balance to its favor when it is strong to do so. Britain started the Dreadnought competition, which is a new type of battleship that has to dominate advantage over its ancestor – it ate Britain’s number advantage by itself.

Part III: A Gathering Storm

Imagine China were just like us

This chapter quickly walked through how the US established itself in the international relation stage in the last century and dropped the question if China will be as demanding and blood and iron. TR (Theodore Roosevelt) let the US into a supremely confident century where he defined the national greatness civilize the world with American civilization and use muscles if necessary (superior military forces). In this century, the US claimed the Americas for Americans, finished wars with Spain, settle the Alaska boundary dispute through an `unfair’ British judgment, seized the Panama Canal from an inexperienced government.

What Xi’s China wants

Historically, Chinese civilization was culturally supremacist and ethnocentric – Chinese foreign policy traditionally sought to maintain an international hierarchy, not to expand its borders through military conquest. Xi’s China Dream adds a different color to this history. In this agenda, there are four fronts: Revitalizing the party, reviving nationalism and patriotism; Engineering a third economic revolution, and rebuilding China’s military power. Each of these fronts stems from Xi’s reflection of history from the humiliation century to the fall of the Soviet Union. His iron-willed vision will be reflected in the national goals of international relations: Returning China to the predominance in Asia; controlling over Xinjiang, Tibet, Hk, and Taiwan; influencing other neighbors and get commanding respects of other great powers.

Clash of civilizations

This chapter is a rehash of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. The tension between Chinese culture and the Western has been there since George Macartney. It is covered by the ideology dispute during the cold war but now becomes the main driver of moving civilizations towards the war. Apart from this main argument from Huntington, the author also holds the opinion that Chinese civilization takes advantage of this conflict as strategically it takes issues as dynamic and eternal and would like to solve the issue in a much longer framework.

From here to war

This chapter reviewed four limited war China has been involved with and visualize four situations the US and China will get into a war: Taiwan independence, North Korea collapse, Economic to military war and a war provoked by a third party

Part III: Why War is not Inevitable

Twelve clues for peace

This chapter summarized the clues for peace from the four successful cases in the past 500 years.

  • From Spain v.s.Portugal’s case we know a higher authority like papal could help to resolve rivalry — today we have UN as a counterpart.
  • Germany remains a peaceful power except for its tremendous economic growth because it is a militarily neutered country — it is embedded by a security institution/allay.
  • US and UK shared the culture and language. The UK also missed the best timing to rebalanced US’ growth due to nearby threaten like German/Russia.
  • The cold war is an inevitable way once the US and USSR realized the situation MAD (mutually assured destruction): The fate of the US and USSR are deeply bound, and the leader has to prepare to live together rather than destroying each other.

Today the US and China have entered the MAED (mutual assured economic destruction): US’s economics largely depends on China’s manufacturing, and China’s 2/3 exports need to cross the pacific, which is guarded by US Navy shortly. The other two clues/concerns we need to pay attention to are the alliances in Asia and the nation’s domestic performance.

Where do we go from here?

The author first reviewed the US’ China strategy since 1949 and pointed out it is contradictory. On the one hand, DC tried to welcome Beijing to the international rules led by the US; On the other hand, although not explicitly stated, the US Asian strategy of allaying with India, Japan, and South Korean set China as the enemy. There are majorly four strategies US can adopt from now:

  • Accommodate: Recognize China’s rising and adjust the relationship. It can be either ad hoc or negotiated.
  • Undermine: Criticize the human rights issue in China; support separatist movement in Tibet, Taiwan, etc.
  • Negotiate a Long Peace: Exchange what it values most.
  • Redefine the Relationship: There are four challenges that China and the US are facing together, namely, nuclear Armageddon, nuclear anarchy, global terrorism, and climate change. These are challenges so severe that both sides are compelled to work together.


The conclusions are for the US leadership but also suitable for China’s:

  • Clarify vital interests
  • Understand what the other nation is trying to do
  • Do strategy
  • Make domestic challenges central