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The US and China Are Not Destined for War

As more commentators warn of a coming military conflict between the United States and China, it is easy to believe that war is inevitable. But while history suggests that rising powers will often clash with incumbent ones, there are important exceptions and unique present circumstances to consider.

BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA – In the year 2034, the United States and China become embroiled in a series of military conflicts that escalate into a devastating tactical nuclear war. Other countries – including Russia, Iran, and India – get involved. Suddenly, the world is on the verge of World War III.

This is the scenario described in 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, an engrossing work of speculative fiction by NATO’s former supreme commander, Admiral James Stavridis, and Elliot Ackerman. The book is part of a growing chorus now warning that a clash between the world’s current rising power and the incumbent one is almost unavoidable. Graham Allison of Harvard University has dubbed this phenomenon the Thucydides Trap, recalling the ancient Greek historian’s observation that, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

True, throughout history, when a rising power has challenged a ruling one, war has often been the result. But there are notable exceptions. A war between the US and China today is no more inevitable than was war between the rising US and the declining United Kingdom a century ago. And in today’s context, there are four compelling reasons to believe that war between the US and China can be avoided.