When the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, Washington and Beijing were on good terms–the military balance between the two countries was not politically salient. Much has happened in the ensuing decades. While American attention turned towards battling Iraq in two wars, responding to the threat posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan and around the world, and in dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/DAESH) as the latest manifestation of the jihadist threat, the status quo was changing in Asia. China has emerged not only as a global economic and political power, but also as a conventional military power in the Western Pacific that possesses a small nuclear arsenal that under permissive circumstances can hold a few United States (U.S.) cities at risk. The conventional and nuclear balance in Asia is shifting from one of overwhelming U.S. preponderance to a situation in which things might become a bit more sporting.
Caitlin Talmadge’s recent article in International Security is a major intellectual contribution to a predominantly U.S.-centric debate on the likelihood of Chinese nuclear escalation in a conventional conflict with the United States. In particular, Talmadge’s article is to be commended for providing one of the most rigorous accounts of the scope of a hypothetical U.S. military campaign against China over Taiwan, and relatedly, how this campaign might threaten Chinese nuclear assets, thereby creating operational conditions that might inadvertently push China to go nuclear. Yet this U.S. military-technical challenge is not, for the author, the key issue. Rather, in determining ‘would China go nuclear?’ the author offers another, slightly less developed, answer: it depends on what Chinese leaders believe or think.
“Identity matters for security outcomes”, writes Jarrod Hayes in this fascinating roundtable on his 2013 book, Constructing National Security. Is there anyone working on international security today who can possibly think otherwise? Even the most diehard rationalist must surely recognize the importance of identity to President Donald Trump’s worldview, and to how other states, whether allies or adversaries, are developing their security policies in response to Trump’s election. But how much does identity matter? And when does identity matter? These are thornier issues. In answering these questions, both Constructing National Security and the contributors to this roundtable offer much food for thought.
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.” 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.
As 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.
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.”
Adam 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.
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.
Few 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. 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.
It 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.