‘The Thucydides trap’ becomes the Asia–Pacific theme song
5 Dec 2023|

Thucydides trap: from the Greek historian’s statement that the alarm of the established power at the challenge of the rising power makes war inevitable.

The Asia–Pacific ponders the growing chances of war.

Australia’s policy community shares the region’s unhappy understanding ‘that nations can sleep-walk into war, even when rational, objective self-interest on all sides cries out against it’. That nightmare scenario is described by Gareth Evans in the Australian chapter of the CSCAP Regional Security Outlook 2024, produced by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.

The editor of the annual survey, Ron Huisken, writes that the ‘relentless intensification of tension and animosity’ between China and the US has ‘deflated the regional spirit, inflamed quarrels, replaced optimism with trepidation and made Thucydides Trap into something of a regional theme song’.

With that tune in their ears, Huisken notes, prominent commentators around the Asia–Pacific ‘speak openly about the risk of major power war’.

Taking the temperature of the Australian ‘policy community’, former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans reports broad areas of Canberra agreement:

  • the ‘fragile and volatile’ regional security environment
  • the most formidable international challenge is ‘negotiating a course between the two neighbourhood giants, China and the United States’
  • the need for more resources for defence and foreign policy than ‘in more complacent decades past’
  • ASEAN continues to be a ‘supremely important defuser of cross-border tensions’ in Southeast Asia, but has proved incapable of ‘any kind of collective resistance to overweening behaviour by China’
  • the Quad commands ‘quite strong support’ in Canberra, albeit ‘more for its optics than any real military substance’.

Evans says the ‘alarming vagaries’ of US domestic politics creates concerns about its ‘will and capacity to stay the course in its long self-appointed role as regional security stabiliser and balancer’.

Once a deputy leader of the Labor Party, Evans detects growing tensions in this Labor government over Australia’s relationship with the US, although he sees ‘no serious inclination anywhere to walk away from the ANZUS alliance’.

Evans describes Prime Minister Albanese as ‘an instinctive straddler’, while ‘comfortable enough talking Washington talk’. Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles is closest to an alliance ‘true believer’, Evans judges, and Foreign Minister Penny Wong ‘while always cautious, is more inclined to scepticism, particularly on the attractions of continued US primacy’.

Offering an American perspective, Gregory Poling, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, judges that a ‘US-China conflict over Taiwan does not seem imminent, and any escalation would almost certainly be intentional.’ What worries Poling is the chances of an unintentional clash, especially in the air.

He quotes a US count that on 300 occasions over the last two years, Chinese aircraft have ‘performed reckless manoeuvres or discharged chaff, or shot off flares, or approached too rapidly’ to US or allied aircraft: ‘This means that PLA aircraft are intentionally creating risks of mid-air collision about every 2.5 days. At that rate, an eventual accident is a mathematical certainty.’

China’s tactic of ‘violating international law and norms of safe conduct at air and sea to intentionally create risks of collision’ increases the chance of unintended escalation. Poling writes that with virtually no communication between the US and Chinese military, the two sides would struggle to deescalate such a crisis.

The choice facing India is to forsake strategic autonomy for strategic alignment, according to Sourabh Gupta, of the Institute for China-America Studies. India is driven by an ‘anti-China fixation’, Gupta writes: ‘A single point agenda—the obsessive need to countervail any advantage that could accrue to China on the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical canvas—was the common thread that tied together India’s diplomatic strategy in 2023.’

A ‘combustive test of wills’ with China means India’s room for strategic manoeuvre has crumbled, Gupta judges: ‘Strategic autonomy has effectively given way to strategic alignment with the US and the West in the Indo-Pacific region – an outcome not entirely of New Delhi’s choosing.’

From Singapore, Joel Ng, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, writes that the 2020s are shaping up to be the bloodiest decade since the end of the Cold War, as ‘more and more states appear to be anticipating and preparing for conflict’. Ng says the vicious spiral of the China-US relationship is the great challenge confronting the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC).

Created amid the hopes that followed the end of the Cold War, the ARF was designed to evolve from confidence building measures to preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution, offering a framework for cooperative security. Yet the ARF still struggles on that first confidence-building rung, and Ng notes that ‘managing regional conflicts is no longer a hypothetical contingency. The onset and risk of conflicts regionally requires more proactive action. ASEAN might consider convening a conference of TAC signatories as a suitable high-visibility first step to initiating a new round of confidence building measures between all actors.’

Chiming in on that thought, Outlook editor Ron Huisken writes that if the language of ASEAN centrality has meaning, then ASEAN must ‘move beyond quiet diplomacy’ to push the ‘giants toward a workable accommodation and a joint commitment to a more constructive regional security agenda’.

An assertive ASEAN, Huisken says, would ‘encourage, provoke, require—whatever the circumstances seem to require or allow—an earnest dialogue with and between the US and China on the preferred character of the region’.

As a small example of the problems in getting that earnest dialogue, the 2024 security outlook carries no contribution from China. That’s a repeat of last year, when for the first time in 15 years there was no chapter offering China’s view.

The absence suggests that the second track strategists of China’s CSCAP are cautious in writing about where China’s leader Xi Jinping is heading on the first track. A dark interpretation is that China is not interested in talking about stabilising the ‘rules-based system’ in the Asia–Pacific because Beijing views the ‘system’ as a euphemism for Western dominance. Certainly, that’s the Russian perspective offered in the CSCAP Outlook.

The chapter from by Ekaterina Koldunova, of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, reports that the ‘political and military crisis in Ukraine’ and US and EU sanctions have ‘triggered transformative change’ in Russia’s foreign policy, security outlook and economy.

‘In reality rather than just in words, Russian political and economic decision-makers finally became serious about developments in Asia, seeking opportunities to cooperate and addressing shortcomings in Russia’s relations with the region,’ Koldunova writes. Those who ‘cautioned that Russia’s pivot to Asia was a pivot to China’ got more evidence as relations with Japan and South Korea continued to deteriorate.

Western sanctions ‘galvanised’ Russia’s search for ‘alternative global governance instruments’, Koldunova judges, and Moscow sees the swing away from Western rules as the ‘hidden aspiration of many countries in Asia’.

The Asia–Pacific frets about the health of the international system and the weakening of rules. And the growing danger of conflict. The sleep-walking fear is the unintended clash that nobody wills but galvanises the will to fight.

Whatever hidden aspirations Asia may have, what it hears and fears is that tune by Thucydides.