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COVID-19 and the Thucydides Trap

After years of deepening Sino-American divisions, perhaps it is not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters worse. But if both countries take a clear-eyed view of their own interests, they will see that cooperation is the best medicine now.

BEIJING – As Graham Allison of Harvard University has warned, “when a rising power like Athens, or China, threatens to displace a ruling power like Sparta, which had been the dominant power in Greece for a hundred years, or the US, basically alarm bells should sound.” Nowadays, the alarm bells are sounding so loud that they are drowning out ideas that would allow the United States and China to escape what Allison called the “Thucydides Trap.”

There are three paths forward: one may be a dead end, another will lead to ruin, and the third could bring about a global recovery. The first path runs in the direction of what British historian Niall Ferguson has deemed the “Chimerica” model: a marriage of the Chinese and US economies. This perspective acknowledges the reality of the twenty-first-century economy, which is deeply integrated through global value chains.

But the Chimerica model may no longer be feasible, owing to the economic imbalances that it has spawned. Given the widespread backlash against globalization and China, particularly in the United States, it is increasingly unlikely that a process of deepening Sino-American integration can be revived. If anything, a broad-based “decoupling” is already underway.

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