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It’s time to give China its “place in the sun”

The Athenian naval defeat near Corinth, around 430 BC

The political scientist Graham Allison has long argued that America and China are ensnared in the “Thucydides trap”, says Rohan Mukherjee in Foreign Affairs. This is the idea, based on the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BC, that when an established power refuses to share the benefits of hegemony with a rising power, the result, almost invariably, is “large-scale conflict”. Yet often overlooked in this analysis is that, alongside the traditional objectives of security and prosperity, countries on the up also want status. And China is no exception. Beijing sees itself as an equal to the US – yet is made to feel unwelcome in many of the international bodies that govern the global order. That’s the sort of “persistent inequality” that can lead a nation to “turn hostile”.

There’s a simple solution: we should be more welcoming to China. Beijing generally co-operates with the institutions that put it on level pegging with Washington, such as the UN Security Council and the World Trade Organisation. But organisations in which it has limited leadership prospects and influence – like the UN Human Rights Council – it sees as fundamentally unfair, and thus does its best to delegitimise their authority. So why doesn’t the US give China at least some of the status it craves? Cede part of its control over the IMF, say, or the World Bank? You can hardly expect the global rules-based order to stay intact if you refuse to let everyone have a say in the rules. It’s time to give China its “place in the sun”.