The Thucydides trap was first noted by the famed ancient Greek historian who noted that a ruling power feels threatened by a rising power making war almost inevitable.
The author studied 16 instances since the 15th century of a rising power challenging a dominant power with all but four of them resulting in war. Today it seems obvious that China is rising and is already challenging the United States on many fronts.
Like all ruling powers United States is happy with the previous status quo and most of its citizens have difficulty in accepting they may not be the ruling power in the near future. The ruling power has always been associated with military might, but Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore feels the next time will involve economic power with military power playing a lesser role.
China's economic growth in a historical context is mind boggling. It is the major trading partner for over 130 countries and in the absence of the TPP agreement their dominance is likely to increase. After the 2008 economic problem it maintained a strong growth and is likely to overtake the American economy (it already has in some aspects) in the very near future. Its dominance is apparent in Asia. They are demanding more respect and to a large extent do not feel they are treated fairly.
America would do well to ponder how they got to be the dominant force in the world. They obliterated large numbers of humans who were already settled in North America. Manifest Destiny was a political philosophy that pushed Americans west. When Teddy Roosevelt entered politics he welcomed an opportunity to chase the Spaniards out of Cuba and in the process take possession of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. He also forced Britain to back off an issue in Venezuela and engineered re drawing the Alaskan border to the detriment of Canada. Teddy Roosevelt helped instigate a rebellion in Colombia that allowed the building of the Panama Canal under American control. Americans interfered in Latin American affairs until Franklin Roosevelt ended it. A good part of their economic growth came from slavery: http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2016/12/the-half-has-never-been-told.html
The Chinese are proud. Their civilization has outlasted all others. Humiliated they saw themselves as the only civilization at one time with everyone else barbarians. The British humiliated China including forcing them to accept opium. Other Europeans, Americans and Japanese added more shame. Xi Jinping underwent his own humiliation as his father had been imprisoned. Xi is investing in science, technology and innovation. He identified and supported Jack Ma, the owner of Ali Baba, one of the largest firms in the world. Perhaps because of their long history the Chinese are patient, avoid unnecessary confrontations, but have bitten back on occasion. They are demanding respect and are very sensitive to what they consider slights. Xi Jinipeng's mission can be stated as to make China great again.
There are lots of potential triggers. Taiwan has historically been defended by the United States while China considers it part of their country. Japan has a history of abusing the Chinese. North Korea has been isolated and seems paranoid. China may well be alarmed at the North Koreans, but they also are concerned about Americans coming closer to their border and with refugees overflowing. A trade mis-understanding could escalate as many Americans feel threatened by outsourcing.
To look for hope and guidance Graham examines the instances that did not result in war. The Portuguese and Spaniards sought guidance from the papacy and accepted it, although at first Portugal thought they got the short end of the stick. Later it was realized Brazil would be under their jurisdiction. Britain the world's first global superpower noted United States, and perhaps because they had serious rivals nearby, they accepted the new status quo, rationalizing their culture (language, legal, etc.) was being carried on.
MAD (mutually assured destruction) ironically restrained the Soviet Union and the United States from directly confronting each other. The author points out that China and United States have economies that are intimately intertwined and could be in a form of MAED (mutually assured economic destruction.
Germany and Britain resolved their sometimes violent relationship with Germany being pulled in to uniting Europe.
There are factors that mitigate the danger. There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese studying in American and European universities most of whom go back home. One Harvard graduate was Xi Jinping's daughter. Globalization has exacerbated tensions in some ways, but in other ways has made us more interdependent than ever in history.
The author offers four strategies. First might be to accommodate as Britain did with the United States. A second might be to undermine the regime. A third could be to negotiate long term peace as American worked with Russia regarding such things as arms limitations. A fourth strategy might be to re define their relationship.
Ronald Reagan was noted as having suggested to Gorbachev that if Martians are to invade earth, the Russians and Americans would have to unite to fight the common foe. The author suggested that there are a number of common foes requiring united action. A nuclear Armageddon is very possible and requires international attention. Another variation is a possible nuclear anarchy with more nations having a finger on the trigger. Terrorists are an international concern, but would be even more so if they got their hands on nuclear or biological weapons. And climate change which is becoming more and more entrenched. All of these possibilities are threatening civilization and cannot be dealt with by any one country or even a small group.
First step is to clarify vital national interests. Don't need to be too inclusive for example does everyone in Asia threaten America? Second understand what China really wants realizing that it is not a mirror of what Americans want. Third, develop a strategy that is deeper that aspirational political statements that are not realistic. Fourth, the author feels Americans need to focus on domestic concerns including dealing with endemic "corruption," a "poorly educated and attention deficit driven electorate," a lack of "civic responsibility," and a "gotcha press" amongst other concerns.
Graham also feels the Chinese need to be concerned about being too centralized and too stuck in their ways. He implies if each nation concentrated on their own deficiencies they would realize their highest priority should not be how they share influence in Asia. They would both do well to read, "History of the Peloponessian War" by Thucydides who had a pretty good diagnosis on the problem.
This is a book that in detail points to a lack of understanding and potential harm to everyone. The dangers and opportunities outlined here are well amplified in the book. I hope that it gets the attention it urgently deserves. It was written after the election of Donald Trump. The issues raised in this book are of the most serious nature and give this blogger concern for the future of mankind. It is not just that Donald Trump is so inappropriate for his role in these and other delicate matters, but the people who put him in power have been reckless in their decision and priorities.
For more details check out http://www.belfercenter.org/thucydides-trap/overview-thucydides-trap