Think Tank (September to November 2019)
Prof Steve Chan


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Appraising Thucydides’ Trap
02 Sep 2019

Professor Steve Chan, College Professor of Distinction and Professor of Political Science, University of Colorado, Boulder and Ngee Ann Kongsi, Professor of International Relations delivered an RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture titled “Appraising Thucydides’ Trap” at Marina Mandarin Singapore on 2 September 2019. Prof Chan shared his thoughts on Allison Graham’s book titled, Destined for War. He started the lecture by providing a brief outline on the background of “Thucydides’ Trap” and subsequently examined the relevance of the theory in today’s context.

Prof Chan raised some analytical problems concerning Graham’s thesis indicating that an alternative perspective is required to explain the missing factors behind the relationships between emerging and rising powers. His disagreement with the analysis was based on Graham’s selection criteria for his case study on power transition, and the standards used for determining “ruling” and “rising” states being unclear. There are other alternative explanations which may contribute to war occurrences. He further explained that changing power relations can be the result of war and foreign competition, and not just their ostensible cause.

Thereafter, Prof Chan discussed “Thucydides’ Trap” in the present day situation. He mentioned that scholars in Beijing are aware of factors influencing the geopolitical climate. In contrast to Graham’s analysis, Prof Chan views China as a regional power. It aims to secure its region, rather than going global. He cautioned Chinese and American leaders against Graham’s misleading analysis, exaggerating China’s capabilities. China and the United States should not only focus on imminent power transition, territorial size, export volume and military hardware, but should also invest on other intangible qualities such as society’s institutional adaptability, government’s ability, and economic productivity.

He concluded by pointing out that it takes two to fight. Preoccupation with the bilateral balance of power may potentially distract attention from other considerations and result in misperceptions. If leaders in Beijing and Washington believe that ongoing power transition will lead to war, there is a danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy that the two powers are destined to go to war.

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