The Inevitability Of A U.S.-China War And How To Avoid It

We may be to apply history and find a peaceful way forward.

By Teddy Landis, Harvard Class of 2020

As the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power has seen a lot. So when she calls a book “gasp-worthy,” we should pay attention.

On Wednesday, March 22nd, Ambassador Power and history Professor Niall Ferguson joined Professor Graham Allison and moderator Professor Arne Westad at Harvard Institute of Politics’ JFK Jr. Forum to discuss Allison’s latest book. Allison is the director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a renowned political scientist. His new book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? (forthcoming, May) takes a insightful dive into its namesake question: How can the United States escape going to war with China?

Perhaps aware of Thucydides’ relative obscurity outside of philosophy and political science circles, Allison started the event by explaining Thucydides’ Trap: when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, alarm bells should ring. There is a risk for war. According to Allison, the big problem is China. China is absolutely a rising power that threatens to replace the United States as the world’s number one superpower.

China’s growth significantly outpaces the United States’. The country is on track to become the world’s most powerful superpo
China’s growth significantly outpaces the United States’. The country is on track to become the world’s most powerful superpower.

To give the audience a sense of China’s rise, Allison asked the audience to predict when China would become number one in ten different categories including automobile manufacturing, number of billionaires, and GDP.

Take the full quiz at the Belfer Center’s <a rel="nofollow" href="
Take the full quiz at the Belfer Center’s website.

The answer? It already is. China’s growth over the past few decades has been so tremendous, China’s world supremacy is inevitable. One astounding example of its growth provided by Ambassador Power: between 2011 and 2013, China produced and used more cement than the United States used in the entire 20th century.

Were you actually surprised?
Were you actually surprised?

Ambassador Power explained how this could pose a problem for the United States. Although the past 70 years have been called the “long peace,” much of this peaceful world order relies on American-centric policies. As China gains power, they are going to want to shift that dynamic. So far China has only exerted its domain over its Asian neighbors, but it is a fair assumption that they will want to broaden their reach in the future.

As the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Power saw firsthand how this could happen. While China has mostly maintained a “hide your capabilities and bide your time” position, Power says they have started to further embed themselves at the U.N. which could put them in a better position to later “rewrite” the world order down the road.

For example, a decade ago China was a “non-factor” in U.N. Peacekeeping but now contributes more than 3,000 troops and recently experienced their first casualty. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also announced their intention to contribute more than 8,000 troops to a future “rapid reaction force” which would make them the largest contributor of peacekeepers in the world. What this signals is that China is no longer the inward facing country it once was. China is becoming even more of a player on the global stage.

For Ambassador Power, the most chilling part of Allison’s book was its final chapter, which examines the domestic politics of both countries. Allison is specifically concerned with how American politics will respond to this change. As the Trump Administration threatens to step out of certain world affairs like climate change, it creates room for China to come in and become the leader.

Professor Niall Ferguson, who along with Allison has created the Applied History Project, provided commentary on how to navigate this situation. He pointed to the 16 historical examples included at the end of Allison’s book where a rising power has threatened a ruling power. Only four of the cases successfully avoided war, ranging from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century to Germany and the rest of Europe in the late 20th century. From each of these examples we can find lessons on how to avoid war. Ferguson warned can and must apply history to our present situation.

Out of Professor Graham Allison’s 16 historical examples of a rising power threatening a ruling power, only 4 cases successfu
Out of Professor Graham Allison’s 16 historical examples of a rising power threatening a ruling power, only 4 cases successfully avoided war.

While Ferguson agreed with Allison’s argument that China and the U.S. are headed in the trajectory of war, he did say we have to be careful of the “Paul Kennedy Syndrome.” Kennedy, a professor at Yale, implied in his famous The Rise and Fall of Great Powers that West Germany and Japan were on the verge of overtaking the United States. Obviously that did not happen.

If we apply similar skepticism to the U.S.-China scenario, we can see that the U.S. still maintains the world’s most powerful military by a huge margin, and that global interdependence is higher than ever. China and the U.S. need each other and China would not necessarily win a war.

Furthermore, Chinese leaders do not want war and will take steps to prevent war from being necessary. It is possible that with Trump’s potential retreat from world, their takeover might become easier. Ferguson reported that in this respect, Chinese leaders feel as if history is going their way. (Although Trump’s latest action in Syria could signal that the “retreat” may not be happening).

Ferguson concluded on a more positive note by saying that China’s leaders are perhaps the most history-minded in the world. They study history and they apply it. This makes them far less likely to be trigger happy and instead points them towards a strategy where war is far less likely.


As China overtakes the United States’ geopolitical and economic supremacy, it is poised to become the world’s number one power. Thucydides warned us that this dynamic is a trap that often leads to war. However, with careful study from Professors like Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson, and leadership from politicians like Ambassador Samantha Power, we may be to apply history and find a peaceful way forward. You can watch the full conversation at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum here.

Teddy Landis is a freshman at Harvard College and plans on concentrating in Sociology. In addition to being a member of the JFK Jr. Forum Committee, Teddy works with the Harvard Public Opinion Project at the Institute of Politics.