Journal of Chinese Political Science

, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 25–45 | Cite as

In the Shadow of the Thucydides Trap: International Relations Theory and the Prospects for Peace in U.S.-China Relations

  • Oriana Skylar MastroEmail author


Rising powers and the consequent shifts in the balance of power have long been identified as critical challenges to the international order. What is the likelihood that China and the United States will fall into the Thucydides Trap, meaning that the two countries will fight a major war during a potential power transition? This article creates a framework of seven variables, derived from dominant international relations theories and Graham Allison’s “twelve clues for peace,” that predict the likelihood of major conflict between a rising and an established power: degree of economic interdependence, degree of institutional constraints, domestic political system, nature of relevant alliances, nature of nuclear weapons programs, the sustainability of the rising power’s growth, and its level of dissatisfaction. It then evaluates the values of these variables in the context of the U.S.-China relationship to determine whether pessimism about the prospects of peace is warranted. This analysis leads to more mixed conclusions about the prospects of peace than liberal international relations theory and Allison’s twelve clues would suggest. This research further operationalizes power transition theory and has practical implications for U.S. policy toward China.


U.S.-China relations Thucydides trap Power transition theory Interstate war Nuclear deterrence Economic liberalism International institutions 



The author thanks Annie Kowalewski, Christian Verhulst, and Qi Zhang for their expert research assistance.


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Copyright information

© Journal of Chinese Political Science/Association of Chinese Political Studies 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Georgetown UniversityWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.American Enterprise InstituteWashingtonUSA

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