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War and Peace in East Asia: Avoiding Thucydides’s Trap with China as a Rising Power

Khan, Haider (2023): War and Peace in East Asia: Avoiding Thucydides’s Trap with China as a Rising Power.

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Many have noticed the rise of China and warned of underlying danger to regional stability in Northeast Asia leading to global instability. A discourse about whether China and the U.S. will fall into the so-called “Thucydides’s Trap” has begun. Some observers are concerned that the active maritime military action of China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait may lead to unexpected conflicts between China and other Northeast Asian actors with eventual US-China confrontation. I present some conceptual elaborations of “Thucydides’s Trap” from both a scientific realist view of causal depth and a deeper form of neoclassical realism in international relations with appropriate historiography. I offer evidence from recent history of Northeast Asian international relations that the trap is avoidable but avoiding it requires important confidence building measures. The neoclassical realist considerations of internal politics of key actors shows an overwhelming consensus regarding peaceful conflict resolution via a grand strategy of cooperation with some conflicts that can be resolved through negotiations in good faith. While a full blown theory of Thucydides’s Trap within the broader framework of power transition theory is still to be worked out, this work can also be seen as a step in that direction. Although detailed analysis of the best available current historical evidence from Northeast Asia within a critical neoclassical realist(CNR), or more detailed critical transneoclassical realist(CTNR) paradigm shows that the so-called “Thucydides’s Trap” is not inevitable, recognizing the actual opportunities and constraints in order to escape the trap has hardly begun. Since the consequences of an actual war are so severe, both conceptual analysis of sovereignty and power based on realist principles and applied consequentialist reasoning offer strong arguments for finding credible means to avoid the trap. This chapter points to some feasible steps in light of a careful reading of recent history of Northeast Asian relations and offers a tentative scientific realist conceptualization of the “Thucydides’s Trap.” In particular, the CNR theory based analysis already shows the limitations of the structural neorealism on which Mearsheimer explicitly and Allison implicitly base their arguments about US-PRC rivalry and tensions. Using the causally deeper CNR approach and the concrete case of tensions in Northeast Asia, the present work can be seen as a necessary step in the direction of developing an applicable theory of “Thucydides’s Trap” with sufficient causal depth and analytical reach within a yet broader and more useful global theory. This effort will be a further step towards building a complexity theory based multiplex cooperative new global order, or CTMNGO combining constructively a critical transneoclassical realism(CTNR) with global and regional cooperative institution building for our genuine planetary common good.

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