In his 5th-century B.C. History of the Peloponnesian War, ancient Athenian historian and military general Thucydides posits, “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
It’s a musing that prompted American political scientist Graham T. Allison in 2012 to venture a theory known as the “Thucydides Trap,” noting that of 16 historical occasions when a presumptive power challenged an established one, no less than 12 resulted in war.
Today, the “Thucydides Trap” is most often used to describe fractious U.S.-China relations and where they may lead—though it is a matter of hot debate. Objectors cite intertwined supply chains, established international governance mechanisms, and bilateral trade that reached a record $760 billion last year. Endorsers point to resurgent nationalism, concerted military build-ups, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric on both sides—arguably the most worrying of which emerged Friday, when U.S. Four-Star General Mike Minihan warned his troops of China: “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.” (The Pentagon says that Minihan’s comments “are not representative of the department’s view on China.”)
“I hope I am wrong,” Minihan, who heads the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, wrote in a memo, which circulated on social media, to the leadership of its 110,000 members. Chinese President Xi Jinping, he explains, “secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022. Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”
The subject of the memo is “February 2023 Orders in Preparation for — The Next Fight,” and Minihan goes on to direct troops to undergo a monthly progression of readiness, including ordering personnel to “consider their personal affairs” and to “fire a clip into a 7-meter target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most. Aim for the head.”
The sensational remarks have provoked consternation on both sides of the Pacific. “All these are things that you say when you’re getting ready to go to combat,” retired U.S. Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis tells TIME. “Either he knows something that we don’t, or he’s just really trying to get everybody fired up. But I can tell you, for sure, it’s very out of the ordinary.”
The Pentagon’s press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, meanwhile, said in a statement that “China is the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense and our focus remains on working alongside allies and partners to preserve a peaceful, free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Minihan’s memo was described as “reckless and provocative” in a headline by the strident Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times. And Zhou Bo, a retired senior colonel of the People’s Liberation Army and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, tells TIME that Minihan’s projection is “irresponsible,” adding that the American general is “probably just using the tactics of smearing the image or credibility of China without wasting a bullet.”
Chest-Thumping or the Drumbeat to War?
Minihan’s comments are merely the most immediate of a worrying, emerging consensus that the U.S. and China are destined to clash over Taiwan, the self-ruling island of 23 million that Beijing claims as its sovereign territory. On Jan. 23, former chief of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Philip Davidson said he stood by an earlier assessment that China may attack Taiwan by 2027.
Notably, when asked about Minihan’s remarks at a press conference, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry was quick to direct official ire toward Taipei. “The real cause of the new round of tensions across the Taiwan Strait is the [ruling Democratic Progressive Party] authorities’ continued act of soliciting U.S. support for ‘Taiwan independence,’” she said.
It’s clear that a war between the world’s top two economies would upset the global economy at a scale utterly eclipsing the disruption wrought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But recently, there were signs that China was attempting to mend fences. So-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomats—named after a jingoistic action movie—have been reassigned to less prominent roles.
Liu He, the CCP’s outgoing chief economic strategist, was all smiles at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he gushed that China’s “opening up to the world is a must.” And unlike the previous year, Xi didn’t use his New Year address to call for China-Taiwan reunification. Instead, he said, “We cherish peace and development and value friends and partners.”
Observers suggest that China is keen to repair some of the damage done to his country’s foreign and economic relations caused by the pandemic and Xi’s backing of Putin’s aggression. But the same red lines remain, and the nature of American democracy means that, on both sides of the aisle, needling them scores easy political points. On Jan. 10, 365 lawmakers in the House voted to form a new China Select Committee to probe the most divisive areas of bilateral ties.
“There is bipartisan consensus that the era of trusting Communist China is over,” new Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told legislators. McCarthy, worryingly, has indicated that he intends to follow the example of his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, who in August visited Taiwan—a trip that Beijing met with unprecedented military drills.
Meanwhile, a military build-up by both sides gathers pace. While the U.S. maintains a strong lead in aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, and larger ships, China’s navy is now the world’s largest by raw numbers. And China is expected to expand its navy by nearly 40% between 2020 and 2040, according to the U.S. Navy. In November 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense predicted that China was set to quadruple its nuclear stockpile and “have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030.” In December, China and Moscow held joint military drills in the East China Sea close to both Japan and Taiwan. Beijing is also reportedly opening a new military base in Cambodia.
The U.S., meanwhile, continues to spend more on its military than the next nine countries combined—the defense budget was recently approved to hit a record high of $858 billion this year—and it has been busy beefing up regional alliances such as the Quad and AUKUS. In January, President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to new cooperation on thwarting potential threats from space, developing uninhabited islands for joint military drills, and reconfiguring U.S. troop deployments on Japan’s island of Okinawa with a new $8 billion base opening on Guam.The U.S. is also reportedly negotiating for enhanced access to Philippines military bases this very week.
The trap is set. The world can only hope we avoid walking into it. “I see hotheads in Beijing, and I see hotheads in the Pentagon and the various commands,” says Davis, the American former army man. “And I worry about it a lot.”