Analysis & Opinions - The Cipher Brief

North Korea Crisis Presents Risk, But Also Opportunity for U.S. and China

| Oct. 22, 2017

Most discussions about the North Korea nuclear threat focus on the risk of conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. Serious as that is, an even more important issue is what the crisis will mean for the U.S. and China – the world’s most consequential relationship. Great risk and great opportunity abound.

Will the 21st century be defined by great power war or peace? By prosperity or poverty? The answers depend largely on the course set by Washington and Beijing. But as powerful as both are, each is subject to structural forces not of their own making. Today, as a rising China threatens U.S. predominance in Asia and the international order the U.S. has underwritten for the past seven decades, both sides are locked in the Thucydides Trap. (Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, was the first to identify the natural tensions between a rising power and the ruling power it seeks to displace – in his case, Athens and Sparta – that can lead to conflict.)

This dynamic leaves the U.S. and China vulnerable to the decisions of third parties: actions that would otherwise be inconsequential or easily managed can trigger reactions by the great powers that lead to disastrous outcomes neither wanted. How else could the assassination of a minor archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 have produced a conflagration so devastating that it required historians to invent an entirely new category – “world war”? In the antics of the erratic (but rational) young leader of North Korea, whom the Chinese security establishment calls “little fatty,” it is not hard to hear echoes of 1914. The challenge for leaders in Washington is to deal with the acute crisis while also developing ways to cope with the underlying challenge in the relationship.

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For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham and Michael Morell.“North Korea Crisis Presents Risk, But Also Opportunity for U.S. and China.” The Cipher Brief, October 22, 2017.