The United States: China’s Power Ceiling

The Thucydides Trap posits that a rising nation and an existing great power must inevitably clash as the former will never be content with inferiority and the latter will seek to maintain its dominance. While current Sino-American relations seem to represent the quintessential example, the Thucydides Trap need not apply to the continually expanding relationship between China and the United States. Academics frequently cite this theory to postulate about future relations between the two countries, largely because war has often resulted between rising and established powers. I believe that the concept of “great power war” has subsided in recent years, and for that reason, among many others, the U.S. and China will not fall into the trap.

As the dominance of nation-states became normal and competition unavoidable, post-Westphalian great power warfare grew more prevalent in Europe. Despite these instances, the world has never before been so subjected to the omnipresence of supranational institutions. The last major example supporting the Thucydides Trap, the rise of Nazi Germany, resulted in the United Nations, an institution which was chartered to bring the world together in harmony so as to prevent the next great power war. While its efficacy in enforcing its decisions stands to be questioned, its persistence suggests global social progress. It derives credibility from the continued desire for membership from great and rising powers alike.

While countries may choose not to let U.N. declarations substantively influence their immediate policy decisions, as evidenced by Israel’s uninhibited settlement-building despite U.N. condemnation, the institution artificially perpetuates a variable of “global cooperation” that members implicitly consider by virtue of their unwillingness to forgo membership. This suggests the institution’s eminent importance and cooperative function. Alongside the U.N. stand the World Bank, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union, and the International Criminal Court, among many other global and regional entities. All different in utility, these supranational institutions draw on the strengths of many countries to jointly promote ideals, values, and most importantly, policy decisions that affect a world becoming ever more interconnected. While China and the U.S. do not directly participate in every institution, cooperation has become a norm rather than an anomaly. This evolving system dissuades conflict by creating a social deterrent as well as a motivator for international collaboration.

Of course, these institutions are not perfect, and there have been many cases of countries breaking international law, the United States included. I believe other established deterrence measures, both military and economic, will prevent a large intractable conflict. First, the United States has the largest and most advanced military in the world. Necessity aside, the U.S. military and its arsenal will continue to modernize and expand under the current administration. We have already seen evidence of this in President Trump’s push to increase military spending by $54 billion in his latest budget proposal.

The U.S. military, combined with the militaries of America’s allies, its treaties, and precedent of its great power victories, are all likely to dissuade China from launching missiles at the United States. Furthermore, a less predictable executive in the United States who has expressed willingness to use the nuclear arsenal might even further dissuade potential military challengers. Chinese military challenges against the United States are further dissuaded by wide-ranging alliances resulting from supranational institutions. While direct military challenges against the United States are unlikely, I believe that Chinese geopolitical pursuits will tempt the United States into getting involved in potential military conflicts. Recent escalations in the South China Sea are the most pressing global issue involving both the United States and China that could result in altercation. The United States’ past unwillingness to intervene militarily suggests that it is committed to a strategy that dissuades China diplomatically.

Under the Trump Administration, however, I maintain that the likelihood of hard power intimidation in the South China Sea is more probable. In a scenario where President Trump takes a more commanding presence in the region, a military clash would be unlikely. The International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea’s 2016 ruling in the case of The Republic of Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China unified much of the world in recognizing standards of international law. The Tribunal gave a verdict claiming China has no legal basis or historical claim on the Nine-Dash Line, reemphasizing the illegality of China’s island-building activities. Consequently, the large retaliation following China’s escalation would likely dissuade further maritime encroachment.

Secondly, the United States and China are intimately tied economically. China already holds over $1.2 trillion of U.S. debt in bills, notes, and bonds, which is over 8 percent of total U.S. debt. If the United States chooses to skirmish with China, it will continue to rely on income from selling its treasuries to other countries. This solution will only persist as long as the world continues to value the dollar the most. If the United States does not grow alongside China, the value of the dollar will continue to fall, as the currency of a country going further into debt will no longer be envied. Asymmetric rebalancing will become a very real danger for both countries if the U.S. and China do not work together in coming years to converge to equal savings. This is contingent upon growing trust, which is in turn contingent upon the avoidance of armed conflict.

Furthermore, China’s growth is slowing. Its impressive levels of double-digit growth have since waned, and the prospect of further exponential growth will continue to be stymied by its demographic challenges. As a result of the One Child Policy and female infanticide — a notorious practice that is outlawed but that has plagued the country’s rural areas —China’s gender ratio is disproportionate compared to that of other nations. Its upcoming generation will have a harder time expanding, and an equivalent drop in available working-age citizens, compounded by the number of elderly parents and grandparents that will need caring for, will drastically reduce China’s ability to achieve growth rates similar to those seen in the last fifteen years.

Security concerns that may have once prompted an expanding power to challenge the authority of present great powers have already been brought to the fore. The South China Sea is a breeding ground for conflict and an area rife with opportunities for China to prove itself. What has it done? Despite regional supremacy, China has opted not to back its claims militarily. The wrong move might cause war with another claimant, nearly all of whom have ties with the United States. The status quo of dominance will not be altered.

Dustin Vesey is a graduate of Yale University. Contact him at

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