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What Could Cause a US-China War?

Thucydides attributed the war that ripped apart the ancient Greek world to two causes: the rise of Athenian power, and the fear that this created in the established power, Sparta. To prevent a new cold or hot war, the US and China must avoid exaggerated fears and misperceptions about changing power relations.

CAMBRIDGE – When China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently called for a reset of bilateral relations with the United States, a White House spokesperson replied that the US saw the relationship as one of strong competition that required a position of strength. It is clear that President Joe Biden’s administration is not simply reversing Trump’s policies.

Some analysts, citing Thucydides’ attribution of the Peloponnesian War to Sparta’s fear of a rising Athens, believe the US-China relationship is entering a period of conflict pitting an established hegemon against an increasingly powerful challenger.

I am not that pessimistic. In my view, economic and ecological interdependence reduces the probability of a real cold war, much less a hot one, because both countries have an incentive to cooperate in a number of areas. At the same time, miscalculation is always possible, and some see the danger of “sleepwalking” into catastrophe, as happened with World War I.