Beware the ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ over the row with China

Michael Makabenta AlunanSO long as China remains at the West Philippine seas and the US troops present in local military camps because of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), an escalation of tension could build up,  thus,  transforming the situation into a volatile “powder keg” that  could lead to the classic but stupid “Thucydides’s Trap,” which triggered the 27-year-long Peloponnesian War that  brought down the Greek civilization.

Thucydides, a military general of Athens and a historian, is known for saying that  “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.”

Why Greece’s civilization collapsed? The Thucydides’s Trap, a phrase popularized by Prof. Graham Allison of the Harvard Kennedy School, captures the stupidity of wars throughout history only because of big  power arrogance  or  hubris, or  fear and honor.

Leon Whyte of the Fletcher School at Tufts University cited Thucydides, noting that Archidamus, the Spartan king, tells his people not to underestimate the power of Athens and to be prudent and cautious.

Unfortunately, Sthenelaidas, an ephor, or a magistrate who shared the king’s powers, rallied the Spartans to vote for war over honor.

Even when cooler heads intervened, the surge in mindless  emotions forced the war to break out again. On the seventh year of the War, for instance, after Athens won victoriously at the battle of Pylos,  Sparta offered peace to avoid revenge. Again, due to arrogance, Athens’s leader Cleon made unreasonable demands, triggering the war once more.

China’s double talk. It is ironic that even Chinese President Xi Jinping  was quoted as saying that  “it is not  in China’s DNA”  to seek hegemony. “We need to work together to avoid the Thucydides’s trap—between an emerging power and established powers.

On the contrary, China’s actions contradict Xi Jinping’s pronouncements. It rejected the United Nations International Arbitral Tribunal’s decision on jurisdiction in our favor. China argues the Philippines abused the “arbitration mechanism” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, claiming we should have exhausted first bilateral diplomacy. China’s boycott, however, does not  deprive the Tribunal of jurisdiction and hearing complaints from any party. A third party becomes necessary when opposing  parties  are not of equal weights.

Obama’s sweet talk. Contributing to the tension is President Obama’s posturing, even before China’s intrusion, with his “Pivot to Asia,”  which The Manila Times columnist Rigoberto Tiglao calls  a “genius in wordplay” that means  “asserting US hegemony in Asia.”

US State Secretary John Kerry was  hesitant at first, but gave in to Obama’s glib-tongue. Since then, US moved 2,500 Marines to northern Australia; rearmed South Korea; influenced Japan to beef up defense in violation of its anti-war constitution; and lately, sweet-talked Asean to a meeting in California to discuss as well China’s aggression.

Locally, US is seen, right or wrong, having a hand in the rejected memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain creating the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity in Muslim Mindanao with former  US Ambassador Kristie Kenney as witness. Lately, we had the Bangsamoro basic law and the Edca, offering to US troopers for free eight local military camps.   

Lamentable mendicancy. Without being sweet-talked, the Philippines figuratively opened up its arms and legs for free. At least before, the US paid rentals for the military bases. This mendicancy is lamentable.

Worse, our government has bent laws and Article XVIII, Section 25 of the Constitution, banning foreign bases in the Philippines, “except under a treaty concurred by the Senate and, when Congress requires, be ratified by the people.”

Edca didn’t get the Senate’s approval, but was implemented anyway. Complicating the problem is the Supreme Court’s intervention declaring this was unnecessary as Edca is just an implementing agreement of the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, which was already an implementing agreement of the 1950 Mutual Defense Treaty.

Nobody wins in a Thucydides’s Trap. Many believe the US presence is beneficial as a deterrent to China and a better substitute to building our own defense system.

On the contrary, it becomes a magnet of friction, which Prof. Zhang Baohui of Lingnan University in Hong Kong says may lead to an escalation of “unintended consequences, an escalation toward military conflict.” Since then, there had been several frictions, like the US battleships and American and Australian Air Force bombers skirting the contested areas. Lately, China heightened tension again after it was sighted  skirting the  Jackson (Quirino) Atoll.

With over $5 trillion in Asian trade passing through these waters, both powers are throwing their weight to secure their geo-political positions.

The likelihood of accidents is high, but history shows us that conflicts are not accidental, but partly intentional as evidenced by the push for regime changes in Ukraine, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, some African states and the entire Arab Spring. As to Iraq, Libya and Syria, the push  for regime change only fractured their societies into senseless sectarian wars and the rise of ISIS.

One blunder from hotheads could spark a military conflict that could escalate to the worst Thucydides’s Trap, a  global thermonuclear war that can wipe out human civilization in an hour’s time.

Let us, therefore, demand that both China and the US keep distance to avoid this destruction. Why not be neutral  just like Switzerland, Sweden, Liechtenstein,  Vatican, Finland and many others?  This is a win-win solution and an alternative to the Thucydides game. We can even agree to joint mineral exploration and development of the contested areas.

E-mail: mikealunan@yahoo.com.


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