China & Thucydides Scenario


About 2500 years ago, a Greek named Thucydides wrote that the Athens-Sparta war took place because Sparta, the dominant state, became increasingly fearful about the rise of Athens. This concept has been used frequently to describe the risks of war between current dominant power of USA & the rising power & ambitions of China. 


1.Tojo Not Thucydides

We think this is a wrong & superficial analogy for many reasons. First & foremost, it was Sparta, the then dominant power, which launched several invasions of Attica to which Athens responded by using its naval supremacy to raid the coasts of Spartan Peloponnese. Secondly Sparta was principally a land-based power while Athens was a naval power. So Sparta had a semi-legitimate fear of having its territory attacked or at least blockaded by the rising naval power of Athens. Third, Athens had built a more advanced in economic & monetary infrastructure while Sparta almost looked down on money. All this made Sparta nervous about the future and so they attacked to stop the rise of Athens. 

None of the above applies to USA vs. China at least in the sense it is being used. Actually, the better analogy is America with its dominant global navy as the new Athens & primarily landlocked China as the new Sparta. America, like old Athens, is the democracy and China, like old Sparta, is ruled by a ruling class called the Communist Party. America does not have to invade China to slow down China’s rise to superpower status; all America has to do to maintain its naval presence in & around the South China Sea. It is China, like old Sparta, that is petrified of a naval blockade by America & its allies.

And most importantly, America understands China, its aims, its capabilities. In contrast, it is China that has built its self-view to such an extent, that they might make a big mistake. That misconception has been reduced to a large extent due to the words & actions of President Trump. Even more significant are the steps by the Trump Administration to redirect global supply chains out of China into other lands. Also America is now almost unified in its determination to stop Chinese aggression. Next week, GOP Representative Yoho is going to introduce a new legislation titled “Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act” with an “authorization of use of military force (AUMF) if China invaded Taiwan”.

This is radically different from Sparta-Athens. A much more realistic analogy, and one we have used since 2016, is the 1930s pre-war conflict between FDR’s America and the Imperial Japan led by Hideki Tojo. 


2. A Thucydidies Scenario – China as the new Sparta?

For this to be relevant, China as the new Sparta has to be concerned about another rising power which could pose a direct challenge to China. China understands American strengths & weaknesses. A conflict with America will be huge & require mobilization of everything China has. But what if China cannot fully mobilize against America because China has to simultaneously devote a big part of its military to contain or defeat this potentially rising power on its other side? 

Shouldn’t this fear persuade China, like old Sparta, to launch repeated incursions, if not invasions, to seize strategic parts of border territory of the rising power to create militarily favorable positions on the ground? Isn’t it an ancient & valid practice to take out the weak link of an alliance that is being built against you? Even Hitler understood that, despite his megalomania. That is why he invaded Stalin’s Russia despite having signed a non-aggression pact earlier. The western front was dull & inactive after France had surrendered. America was not yet in the war. So it made sense to take out Russia before refocusing on the western border. And Hitler nearly succeeded in defeating Stalin’s regime. 

Ergo, China’s aggressive policy towards India, the new rising power on its eastern front. What do the hawks in China suggest re India? According to an article by Antara Ghosal Singh titled “China’s India Policy Dilemma“, 

  • To deal with a resurgent India, Chinese hardliners suggest a policy of “three nos”: “no weakness, no concession and no defensive defence”. In other words, China should take all opportunities to crack down on India, take the initiative to hit it hard whenever possible. This, it is argued, will not damage China-India relations; on the contrary, it will make it more stable. Didn’t the 1962 China-India war help China to maintain peace and stability on the western front for a long time and directly eliminate American and Soviet ambitions to use India to contain China? In this backdrop there is renewed interest among certain sections of the Chinese strategic community to: keep India under control by destabilising the entire border region, creating tension across the board, from the McMahon Line in the east to the Aksai Chin area in the west; take the initiative to attack and seize territories under India’s control from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, and weaken India internally, by supporting the cause of Maoists, Naga separatists and Kashmiris.

This recognizes that China’s real battle is with America on the eastern front, a primarily naval battle. India in contrast, is not China’s “main strategic challenge”. So peace on China’s eastern front is desired. But how to get that “peace”?

  • Only by daring to fight, by showing strong determination, the will and the ability on the western frontier can China effectively deter its adversaries on the eastern coast. This is also, what they called, the right way to resolve China’s primary contradiction, that is the China-U.S. problem, by first breaking “its arms and legs”.”

And “arms & legs” in this context is India & India’s military infrastructure drive on China’s eastern front. And it is crucial to do this as soon as possible because India is rapidly building up its military infrastructure on its line of control with China. 

But remember what we wrote about Xi Jin Ping during the Doklam crisis in 2017 when the two armies were much closer to a real military confrontation?

  • “He simply cannot be seen as “weak” in this standoff with India in Doka La. On the other hand, coming off second best in a short intense military conflict with India could prove disastrous for him.. “ 

As we added later in that discussion, even a military tie would be a defeat for China in the minds of the rest of the World, especially in the ASEAN. That seems to be what some Chinese commentators are warning now according to the article by Ms. Singh:

  • “If a war starts, they argue, India will make all efforts to prolong it as long as possible, and the U.S. is likely to help India to attain this objective. Even if the two sides ended in a tie, in India it will be counted a victory and the national morale will rise sharply; on the contrary, in China, the morale will decline if it cannot beat India decisively. Therefore, in its effort to “teach India a lesson”, they fear, China might lose more than it would gain.”

This is absolutely true. If mighty China with its huge army & well-built infrastructure cannot decisively defeat the Indian military on land, how on earth can China afford to fight the world’s superpower America with its dominant global navy in the Southern Pacific? 

Here the parallels to Hitler’s Germany attacking Stalin’s Russia seem apt. Having a large Russian land army keep the German army occupied was a big plus for America. It was far easier & much more economical for America to send tanks, trucks & other military hardware to Russia than to commit US troops. This American military support proved critical for Stalin’s reeling Russian Army. 

It will be far easier and much cheaper for America to send support and military aid to the Indian war effort against China than to actually send troops to defend Taiwan against China. The Indian army has trouble locating the Chinese infantry & artillery positions in the Himalayan mountains & valleys. Here America’s unparalleled military reconnaissance could prove critical for the Indian Army. 

Not just America but even EU could step in with military support. EU is just as worried about Chinese aggression and they would welcome a large military like India’s challenging & perhaps stopping China’s advance. 

This is why, as Antara Singh writes,

  • “Chinese political thinkers and professors such as Zheng Yongnian and Yu Longyu among others, …. criticise those vying to “teaching India a lesson” as being “short-sighted” and not “psychologically prepared for the rise of India”. China, they argue, lacks understanding of the fact that India, as a rising power, is very important to China and will be increasingly crucial in the future, with China-India relations evolving as the most important pair of relations after China-U.S. links.”

Despite all of the above, two big factors will decide the course of China-India competition.


3. 1962 vs. 2020

China clearly believes that today is similar to 1962 when they delivered a disastrous defeat to the unprepared & under-supplied Indian Army & utterly humiliated India. As we saw above, Chinese hawks favor another version of the 1962 “lesson”. 

So the big question is whether the Indian Army is better prepared to foil China’s attacks today AND whether India’s ruling leaders are prepared mentally to challenge China’s assertion of hegemony.

This seems laughable to most Indians but it is not that laughable. Indian army is much better prepared today than it was in 1962. And no one can mistake PM Modi for another Nehru. But it is an undisputed reality that Modi has forced the Indian military to survive on a “subsistence” budget since his election in 2014. That was necessary because he knows the Indian electocracy demands greater economic growth from him and not military victories. 

That is why Modi tried to manage Xi Jin Ping in their summit in Wuhan in 2017. Chinese leaders like Xi come up in a brutally competitive communist party and they can sense weakness. Xi responded warmly to Modi perhaps just as Zhou En Lai had responded warmly to Nehru’s conciliatory proclamations. Then Zhou En Lai struck hard in 1962 and essentially wiped out Nehru as a political leader. We think that is exactly what Xi tried to do with his brazen set of incursions all across the long line of control and especially in Ladakh. It was the “break arms & legs” strategy advocated by Chinese hardliners. 

So the big question is how Modi responds.  The brazen attack of 20 Indian soldiers with rods with barbed wire has inflamed and united all of India. That is a big plus for Modi because now getting the Indian military ready for an extended conflict with China is an electoral positive. We also think Modi is intensely angry at being deceived by Xi and neither he nor the Indian military will trust China again. This means virtually turning all of Kashmir-Ladakh into a military camp if necessary and seeking military hardware from suppliers to enable Indian military to go on offensive if needed. 

If this is happens, then it will be clear to Xi’s China that 2020 is not 1962 and they have made a big mistake in waking up Modi & India. 


4. India is NOW in China’s way

Look at China and see how constrained it is geographically. It has always been a land power. And it’s breakouts have been on land using its massive size & large army. A version of that breakout is China’s One Belt One Road policy. That is President Xi’s signature initiative and it is already in trouble in many places. Where does it rest now? On its largest & most significant component – CPEC, or China-(Na)Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting Chinese Xinjiang all the way to the port of Gwadar on the Persian Gulf. 

This is the big difference between China in 1962 and China in 2020. China did teach India a lesson in 1962 but it was a small lesson because India was not in China’s way as far as China’s strategic interests were concerned. 

It is totally different today. China’s strategic interests go through the CPEC corridor and that corridor survives on a knife’s edge called the Karakorum highway. This knife’s edge is the small blue line connecting the two yellow regions  -Aksai Chin on the right & the small Shaksgam Valley on the left. India’s Ladakh sits right on top of this knife’s edge. And India has built military airfields & roads that allow the Indian air force & army to get within a handshake of this road. 

Not merely that, but large green Gilgit-Baltistan territory is actually part of India’s Kashmir that has been illegally occupied by NaPakistan since 1948. The Indian Government is sworn to recover this territory and reunite Kashmir. The moment they do that, the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor is gone and with that China’s plans for the One Belt One Road project. 

This is how a small & sparsely populated part of Indian Kashmir illegally occupied by Napakistan has become a strategic interest of China. There are only two ways to solve this on the map & on the ground.

  1. China purchases the green Gilgit-Baltistan area from NaPakistan (in exchange for debt forgiveness perhaps) and thus catches Indian Kashmir-Ladakh in a physical pincer between Chinese army coming in from the east and Napaki army coming in from the west. Until then, China keeps taking small slices of India’s Ladakh via military incursions & getting greater control of Ladakh. The eventual goal could be to capture the blue area in between (India’s Kashmir & Ladakh provinces). That would make Chinese Xinjiang & Tibet totally safe and convert the China-Pakistan- Economic-Corridor into a huge physical corridor.
  2. India militarily takes back the Gilgit-Baltistan area to reunite Kashmir as it has sworn to do. That will destroy the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor once & for all. 

See this could easily turn into an irresistible force vs. immovable object scenario if China waits until India becomes militarily stronger. That brings us back to Chinese hardliners advocating “first break arms & legs” policy towards India. 

Isn’t this today’s version of the Thucydides scenario? 



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