Stanford expert describes how the U.S. and China can manage their relationship and avoid conflict


Meetings like this one in 2012 between President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping can ease tensions between the two nations if leaders promote healthy interactions, according to Karl Eikenberry of Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Photo credit: 
The White House

Intense competition between the United States and China will be one of the significant global issues in the years to come. Stanford international security fellow Karl Eikenberry says there's no reason the two nations should repeat the "Thucydides Trap," which refers to seemingly inevitable and violent conflicts between rising and existing powers.

The United States and China can peacefully co-exist if they avoid history's most dangerous geopolitical pitfalls, according to a Stanford expert.

The key is not to presume an inevitable conflict, said Karl Eikenberry, the William J. Perry Fellow in International Security at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation and a faculty member of the Shorenstein Asia–Pacific Research Center.

"More often than not, the subsequent competition between the rising and status quo powers results in increasingly bitter conflicts and ultimately ends in all-out war," he wrote in a recent journal article.

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, Eikenberry was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 until 2011. He also served as the defense attaché in the American embassy in the People's Republic of China. He earned an interpreter's certificate in Mandarin Chinese from the British Foreign Commonwealth Office and an advanced degree in Chinese history from Nanjing University.

Eikenberry said that colliding powers sometimes fall prey to the "Thucydides Trap," which harkens back to the Peloponnesian War from 431 B.C. to 404 B.C. when the rising Greek city-state of Athens fought the reigning city-state of Sparta. The Greek historian Thucydides famously wrote, "It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable."

Today, Eikenberry wrote, pundits and experts use the term "Thucydides Trap" to describe the phenomenon of a rising power provoking so much fear in a status quo power that it ultimately leads to conflict between the two. 

Economic bond

However, Eikenberry pointed out, more differences abound than similarities to Sparta and Athens in the case of the United States and China. For starters, the two countries are deeply intertwined in a global marketplace, whereas Sparta and Athens were separate economies.

"The type of economic interaction matters," Eikenberry said in an interview.  

For example, on the eve of the First World War, trade among major European powers was at high levels by historical standards, he said. Yet that did not prevent the outbreak of a cataclysmic war. As for the United States and China, they have a different trading relationship than the European powers in the early 20th century.

"China and the U.S. today enjoy a high level of bilateral trade and China holds a significant amount of American debt. More stabilizing, though, would be increased mutual direct investment," he said.

Eikenbery wrote in his essay that the Sino-American relationship offers its partners particular benefits difficult to find in other countries – such as the world-leading quality of U.S. higher education and the "safe harbor" appeal of U.S. treasury notes as a safe Chinese investment.

"Athens did not hold $1 trillion worth of Spartan treasury notes. Also, huge numbers of Athenian students did not live and study in Sparta. In short, Athens and Sparta were distinct and rival city-states with very little integration or sharing of sector-specific resources or services," he said.

On top of this, Washington and Beijing are in discussions on a bilateral investment treaty, he said. "A good treaty would hopefully encourage more economic activity that in the long term would make military conflict even more costly than it already is."

Values and history count

Still, concerns exist. The differences in belief systems between the United States and China cannot be ignored when one contemplates the future, Eikenberry wrote.

"The United States places a heavy emphasis on democracy, freedom and human rights. By contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping has cautioned party members against advocacy of constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neo-liberalism, media freedom, historical nihilism (excessive criticism of the party's past) and questioning reform. In China, democracy is still considered subversive," he wrote.

In the end, values and history do matter, Eikenbery said. They shape how nations perceive the world and pursue their strategic goals.

"The United States has defined itself as an exceptional nation that has championed democracy and freedom. It sees itself on the winning side of mankind. By contrast, China, feeling aggrieved and humiliated, sees a great need to restore itself to its rightful place in the world as a rich and strong nation," he wrote.

If values like freedom and democracy matter, does this bode well for the United States in its competition with China? Perhaps, Eikenberry said. 

"Americans are questioning their government's performance, especially at the federal level. But the debate is over methods and processes, not whether democracy has run its course," he said in an interview. 

The liberal democratic political model has proven itself over the past couple hundred of years, he noted. "States ruled by closed autocracies have had occasional good runs – sometimes for a few decades – but most have ended failures. I bet on the former," he added.

How the future unfolds for America and China depends on a proper reading of history and political context, Eikenberry said.

"Mismanaged by one or both sides, conflict is possible," he said.

But there's no need for leaders in Washington and Beijing to cast themselves as tragic actors condemned to re-enact the Peloponnesian War.

"To do so would make for a bad reading of history, poor political science and a very flimsy basis for statecraft," he said.

He would advise U.S. and Chinese leaders to focus on fixing their respective political systems. A lot is at stake, not only in both countries, but also for others around the world.

"Failure on China's part would, in the long-term, have severe consequences for its internal and global stability. Failure on America's part would erode its material and moral claim to world leadership," he said. 

Media Contact

Karl Eikenberry, Freeman Spogli Institute: (650) 723-0145,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,