Nearly twenty years ago, Robert Ross wrote an influential article on the sources of stability in East Asia. He argued that while the United States and China were destined to engage in great-power competition, geography and structural factors would lead to a stable regional bipolar balance. The United States would focus on maintaining its maritime position, and China would focus on securing its interests on land. Neither would find it useful or practical to attempt to change the regional order. “The U.S.-China conflict is a rivalry between a maritime power,” Ross concluded. “This dynamic reduces conflict over vital interests and mitigates the impact of the security dilemma, reducing the likelihood of protracted high-level tension, repeated crises, and arms races.”[1] Military leaders in both countries would have to indulge in heroic assumptions to convince themselves that they could seriously challenge their adversary on its domain. Political leaders in Beijing and Washington would benefit from competing – and cooperating on areas of mutual interest – in a relatively low-risk environment.

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Return To Cold War coverAs President Donald Trump’s administration begins, relations between the United States and Russia make the headlines almost every day. No one seems able to agree on what Russian President Vladimir Putin did or did not do to try to influence the 2016 U.S. elections, much less on what his ultimate aims are. Trump’s own cabinet picks, not to mention the U.S. Congress and Senate, are split on whether the U.S. should try yet another ‘reset’ with Russia, or instead punish Putin further for his actions. Meanwhile European countries allied with the U.S. in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are undergoing their own wrenching debates about Russia, with some leading politicians believing that Russia intends to break NATO or perhaps even invade the Baltics, while other European political parties openly cooperate with Putin. Business interests in both North America and Europe seek an end to the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after its seizure of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014, but human rights groups argue to the contrary that even stronger sanctions are warranted.

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Making sense of the present is a difficult undertaking at the best of times. It seems more especially so at the current moment. The tumult of 2016 was of a kind not seen since the ‘spring of the peoples’ in 1848. Power no longer seems to be what it was and where it was thought to be. In the West, a wave of anti-establishment populism threatens to bring down the given order, and, in part, has succeeded in upending established verities. Elsewhere, the world seems in turmoil, too. Migratory movements along Europe’s soft Mediterranean underbelly are placing unprecedented strains on European societies and the continent’s political structures; a restless Russia is intent on a policy of imperial reconstitution, however partial; in East Asia, the rising power of China and a defensive United States are eying each other warily; and Islamist terrorism continues to widen the internal and geopolitical fault lines of the Middle East and to export violence abroad. The speed and spread of change has left commentators perplexed at how what, until very recently, appeared firm and unshakeable has proved brittle and shallow-rooted. Some see Western democracy imperilled and point to parallels with the 1930s. Others draw analogies with the inquietude of Europe on the eve of the First World War. Whether any such parallels exist today, we shall know for certain in a hundred years’ time. Perceived analogies are never exact. Often, indeed, they are misleading, and reveal more about contemporary sensibilities than about ‘objective’ realities. But rather than look back wistfully at the simpler times of the post-1945 world, it is worth remembering that instability and impermanence are the hallmark of international affairs. They are, as German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once observed, “a fluid element, which will coagulate temporarily under certain circumstances but which, at a change in the atmosphere, will revert to its original aggregate condition.”[2]

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By Jeff Kubina (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsAdam Liff’s “Whither the Balancers? The Case for a Methodological Reset” and Ryan Griffith’s “States, Nations, and Territorial Stability: Why Chinese Hegemony Would Be Better for International Order” seek to re-examine several foundational concepts in international relations scholarship. Liff argues for a more conceptually rigorous and standardized specification of balancing that sufficiently accounts for contemporary state behavior. He does so considering reactions to China by what he terms “secondary states” in East Asia and taking on the body of literature that claims an absence of regional balancing in the wake of China’s rise. Griffiths aims to tackle the issues of self-determination and order, which are fundamental to the existing international system and the study of international politics. He proposes that a globally dominant China that continues to insist on its strongly-held preference for territorial integrity is likely to result in a decline in violence from secessionist movements.

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Tsuyoshi Kawasaki’s article contributes to a modest literature on Canada’s diplomatic, security, and defence relations with the Asia Pacific countries. It provides the reader with a succinct and useful review of emergent China in the larger international community with particular reference to U.S.-China relations.  Derivatively, Kawasaki explores his thesis concerning its implications for Canada.

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The China Challenge coverFew political scientists enjoy a level of respect within the discipline comparable to that of Thomas Christensen. His work is always theoretically informed, but also open to the insights of a variety of paradigms and approaches rather than being the captive of a single school of thought. Both of his previous books on alliance politics and Sino-American conflict in the Cold War, as well as numerous articles, are superb examples of how theoretically informed historical research and area expertise can advance scholarship in both disciplines.[1] Christensen has also helped formulate recent U.S. policy towards East Asia, most recently as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Bush administration.

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Chinese Hegemony coverIt is a pleasure to read Feng Zhang’s Chinese Hegemony: Grand Strategy and International Institutions in East Asian History. This book is an exemplar in its serious treatment of Chinese history, its holistic approach to East Asian history covering Inner Asia as well as Korea and Japan, its simultaneous analysis of the foreign policy strategies of both imperial China and its neighbors, and its meticulous examination of fluctuating normative and instrumental strategies in particular periods and in particular relations. It will no doubt become required reading in the International Relations literature.

 

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Theory of Unipolar Politics coverHow long will the United States remain the world’s sole superpower, uniquely capable of commanding the commons and projecting sustained military power to overseas regions? Why has the United States been so prone to use military force in the years since the Soviet Union collapsed? And how might answers to these questions hinge on strategic choices made in Washington?   These are the questions Nuno Monteiro set out to answer in his rigorously argued Theory of Unipolar Politics. They have been at the center of intense debates for a quarter century—and not just in the ivory tower but also among pundits, politicians, intelligence analysts, policymakers and even leaders of major powers.   Monteiro’s arguments have attracted a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Not only does he develop them with great care and express them in clear, forceful prose, he does not shrink from tackling tough problems. In contrast to Kenneth Waltz’s seminal Theory of International Politics,[1] for example, Monteiro’s book deals head on with the interaction between strategic choice and systemic outcomes and the influence of nuclear deterrence on classical balance-of-power thinking.

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Looking for Balance coverWill Asia be the site of the next major global conflict or will Asia’s future continue to be characterized by peace and stability? This question has invited a veritable multitude of arguments and counterarguments during the last two decades as scholars have tried to assess the implications of growing Chinese power for the international system. Some have feared that the rest of Asia will build up its armaments in response to China’s growing strength, creating a dangerous and unstable situation. They have even raised the possibility that the United States might get drawn into Asia’s next war.[1] Others have taken a far more sanguine view of the prospects for peace in the region, contending that China’s neighbors do not necessarily see it as a threat and that growing economic interdependence makes military conflict unlikely.[2]

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International Security (journal) coverAs Geoffrey Blainey, the prominent Australian scholar, wrote long ago, “For every thousand pages published on the causes of wars, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace.”[1] The field of international security studies seems to have such an alarmist tendency, as most publications focus on conflict and war rather than stability and peace. Regarding cybersecurity, scholars and pundits have sounded alarms for years. In such a context, Jon R. Lindsay’s article is refreshing and unusual. Challenging the conventional wisdom, Lindsay argues that the threat from China on cyberspace is overblown, and Chinese vulnerabilities and Western strengths are underappreciated. Furthermore, cyberspace is fundamentally more stable than we conventionally assume. While the proliferation of information technology might enable “numerous instances of friction below the threshold of violence,” (9) cyberwar between United States and China is highly unlikely. Lindsay does not suggest that we should ignore the existence of cyber threats. What he proposes is an analytical framework that makes sense of these threats. Whether or not readers share his cautiously optimistic view, Lindsay’s article will have an enduring relevance to the discussions of cybersecurity, U.S.-China relations, and international relations. My comments focus on the broad implications of his article for international relations and U.S.-China relations.

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