Former Asst. Defense Secretary Advises Path for U.S.-Chinese Relations

Rudd and Allison talk about U.S.-China Relations
Kevin Rudd and Graham T. Allison, the author of "Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?," discuss how the current North Korean situation may influence future U.S.-China relations.
Amid tense relations between the United States, China, and North Korea, Kennedy School professor and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham T. Allison ’62 argued that tension between superpowers like the U.S. and China is a pattern the world has seen before.

In a lecture at the Institute of Politics Wednesday, Allison said that when a rising power such as China tries to displace a ruling power like the U.S., “poop happens.” He referenced his book, “Destined for War,” which examines case studies of feuding international powers beginning with ancient Greece and Sparta.

Because past conflicts between world powers have resulted in war, Allison said, the United States and China ought to learn from the past and avoid this fate.

“To claim that war is inevitable would be wrong. But to claim that the odds are not good would be right,” he said.

The event, called “The Korean Peninsula and U.S.-China Relations: Lessons from Thucydides and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” was moderated by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Allison also discussed China’s decision to agree to the latest round of United Nations sanctions on North Korea, which forces the Chinese government to shut down North Korean-owned businesses in the country. Experts say that China—North Korea’s main trading partner and diplomatic protector—agreed to the sanctions after frustration from escalating nuclear threats from the reclusive nation.

But on Wednesday, Allison raised the possibility of another motive: The Chinese might believe that the UN sanctions are “not likely to have a significant effect on North Korea,” and will not make the east Asian region less stable. If the sanctions were significant enough, Allison said, China would not have agreed because they “would run the risk of instability, which they like less than the alternative.”

Allison speculated that China’s hope in the region is to lessen American influence, arguing that Chinese President Xi Jinping regards American interference in east Asia the same way that former President Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1908, looked at the Caribbean.

“‘What are the Spanish doing in Cuba?’ That’s like, ‘What are the Americans doing in Korea?’” he said. “They should not be here.”

In the future, Allison said he hopes American and Chinese diplomats can work together to prevent the possibility of a North Korean nuclear attack.

“My first and best hope would be that [President Donald] Trump and Xi would each appoint a couple of people who they trust and say, ‘You guys go off for a couple of days and come back with ugly options. Things that both of us are gonna hate, but that will be better than an attack on the North Koreans that risks a war between the U.S. and China,’” he said.

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