The Thucydides Trap and the Korean Peninsula: So why Won’t the USA and China Get Caught?

  • Zhaoying HanEmail author
  • Richard J. Cook
  • Maximilian Ohle
Research Article


“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that it instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable” as Thucydides famously stated. But are we destined to hear echoes of “Carthago delenda est” [Carthage must be destroyed] from Beijing and Washington across the Pacific? With the tension notably on the rise in the issue-specific domains of the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula, there is cause to delve deeper into the contemporary ‘Thucydides Trap’, as expounded by Graham Allison. This paper will focus on the latest developments of the ongoing Korean Peninsula Nuclear Crisis, post Six-Party Talks, as an issue-specific domain to evaluate the changing power dynamic between an established and a rising power. Here the Thucydides Trap and the challenges presented by policy makers in both China and the USA make special reference to the danger of being plunged into a hegemonic conflict. This analysis covers two trajectories: 1) following the conservative approach – balance of power and conditions of hegemony; and 2) concerning a balance of hierarchies – in which the two hierarchies run parallel to each other. Due to China’s rising power in both military and economic fields, it simultaneously presages the relative decline of American power projection. Allison also reconfirms that an established power, in this case the USA, is challenged by a rising power, personified by China, concludes that the likelihood of war has substantially increased. Despite the fact of their growing geopolitical rivalry, both acknowledge the calculus of falling into the trap and realize that a major conflict would devastate their geopolitical positions. Put more directly, finding the great escape from this trap remains the central issue in the contemporary world, raising the conceptionally challenging question as to whether Allison’s theoretical construction is heuristically sound.


Thucydides trap Balance of power Korean peninsular nuclear crisis Six-party talks Hierarchy 



Special thanks are awarded to the grant provided by the National Social Science Fund of China (13 & ZD049) and the Chinese Government Scholarship Council for funding provided that made this research possible. Also, we would like to extend our gratitude to Professor Alaric Searle of the University of Salford, Dr. Srdan M. Jovanovic of Nankai University and the anonymous reviewers for the suggestions and improvements they offered.


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© Journal of Chinese Political Science/Association of Chinese Political Studies 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Nankai UniversityTianjinChina

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