Karrar on Ross and Tunsjø, 'Strategic Adjustment and the Rise of China: Power and Politics in East Asia'

Robert S. Ross, Øystein Tunsjø, eds.
Hasan Karrar

Robert S. Ross, Øystein Tunsjø, eds. Strategic Adjustment and the Rise of China: Power and Politics in East Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017. Illustrations. 304 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5017-0919-7; $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-0918-0.

Reviewed by Hasan Karrar (Lahore University of Management Sciences)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50234

Strategic Adjustment and the Rise of China: Power and Politics in East Asia is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on how the ascendency of China has been shaping the regional security order in East Asia. Edited by Robert S. Ross and Øystein Tunsjø, this volume surveys the role of domestic politics and nationalism, as well as economic and security policy in East Asia. The temporal framing of the volume is contemporary and engaging; most of the developments covered are since the 2008 financial crisis. The chapters center on China, in particular, its relations with the United States, its northeast Asian neighbors, and countries along the South China Sea. While the book describes the multiple sources of authority informing inter-state relations, the authors acknowledge the underlying influence of domestic politics. This is a timely volume; the rise of China is a result of thirty-five years of economic and military modernization. Although China has yet to catch up to the United States economically and militarily, as the editors note in the introduction, modernization since the reform era has resulted in “greater economic activism and greater defense of its sovereignty claims and resistance to adverse regional security trends” (p. 2). Although China’s growing economic and strategic abilities are by now widely accepted as fact, Strategic Adjustment and the Rise of China presents systematic analyses outlining the careful deliberations and foreign policy calibrations in inter-state relations in East Asia; put differently, although inter-state rivalry in East Asia has periodically escalated in the last decade, the chapters in this volume also indicate how the same states have showed restraint, frequently opting for a measured expression of power.

The nine chapters (in addition to an introduction and conclusion)—over three parts—are well integrated. The first four chapters—which make up the first part—describe themes that recur throughout the volume: the centrality of domestic politics in foreign policy, the principle of hedging in inter-state relations, the role of China’s economy, and the interplay between a China driven by economic concerns and a China motivated by strategic considerations. Given how these themes run throughout the volume, I devote more space to discussing these first chapters, followed by a (briefer) discussion of later chapters. Instead of a chapter-by-chapter critique, I conclude with observations on the volume as a whole.

The first chapter, on domestic politics and nationalism in East Asian security by Randall L. Schweller, begins with the assumption that domestic politics play a significant role in shaping foreign policy, and, as an extension, contour East Asian dynamics. With respect to China, nationalism creates an assertive foreign policy; mobilization of public support has allowed for military buildups. Hence, the struggle among nations is in no small part a consequence of nationalism. This nationalism, as Schweller notes, allows for the embellishment of “state power” and the formation of “public opinion” toward the end of an assertive foreign policy (p. 29). The result is a China that is being viewed with caution from neighboring India and Japan and where the discussion of a “quiet rise” has been replaced by an increasingly assertive state. According to Schweller, the end result is likely to be a “cold peace” of simmering conflict (p. 40).

Despite China becoming increasingly assertive in its regional posturing, it is also, as Øystein Tunsjø observes, a state that relies on hedging strategies in the bipolar world (although, as Tunsjø notes, the incentives for hedging may decrease with the emergence of a China-US bipolar world). Hedging reconciles “conciliation and confrontation” in order for a state to be positioned for a range of future outcomes (p. 46); hence, a hedging strategy relies on both cooperation and competition. From the vantage of nearly thirty-five years of reform, Tunsjø notes how China managed to increase its power “formidably” without resorting to military force. This was possible, according to Tunsjø, by creating a “benign” security environment through an extensive hedging strategy (p. 56). Besides China, the United States, too, hedged in its engagement with East Asia, and in particular, in its relations with China. Hedging strategies change with time, but with the dawning of China-US bipolarity, the practice of hedging strategies is called into question. Tunsjø points to how in recent years both countries have increasingly undermined each other’s diplomatic positions. The United States has found itself taking sides in East Asian disputes, just as China has been assertive in maritime disputes; one consequence of change is that regional states have been increasingly forced to choose sides.

China’s rise was enabled by economic growth. Consider, for example, how in 2014, the World Bank declared China to be the largest economy in the world. Foreign exchange reserves—2 trillion dollars in 2008—had increased to 3.4 trillion dollars by 2013 (p. 73). Hence, as China was becoming more self-assured in its regional engagement, it was simultaneously in a position to be more assertive economically, and that too at a time when the United States and Europe were in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. One consequence of China’s economic stability, as Daniel W. Drezner observes in his chapter on Chinese economic power after 2008, is China’s increasing influence vis-à-vis smaller countries. As Drezner notes, between 2008 and 2010 Chinese loans to developing countries and companies exceeded that of the World Bank. China’s tacit assumption of economic leadership that had begun with the 1997 Asian financial crisis caped a decade in which Asian states were increasingly disenchanted with the so-called Washington consensus. The discrediting of the Washington consensus in favor of an alleged China model was predicated on state control of key strategic sectors in the latter. Nevertheless, despite China’s economic ascendency, it has remained restricted by global trade regulations and hemmed in by international pressure on the renminbi; in addition, despite new mechanisms, such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the various new Silk Road investment bodies, China has stopped short of claiming global economic leadership. According to Drezner, the Chinese have been reluctant to proselytize their own model of economic governance in part because of an unwillingness to assume global economic leadership, and in part, because Beijing’s alternative economic policy does not present as a uniform consensus.

In the next chapter, Wang Dong describes the interplay between an “Economic Asia” led by China and a “Security Asia” in which the United States plays a vital role in assuring security in the region. Wang argues that instead of trying to push the United States out of the region, China has pursued a hedging strategy to create a favorable environment for freedom of action beneficial to itself. For China, hedging has served as a de facto insurance strategy. Like other contributors in this volume, Wang sees China as not seeking to disrupt the status quo. In addition, the United States retains deep economic leverage in the region. According to Wang, as China rises, it need not be on a collision course with the United States. Wang quotes then vice president Xi Jinping who in 2013 stated that the Pacific Ocean was big enough for both China and the United States.

The second part of the book examines the rise of China from the vantage of relations with Japan and the Korean Peninsula. In their contribution, Ian Bowers and Bjørn Elias Grønning identify China’s “capabilities and actions” as ultimately dominating Japan’s threat perceptions (p. 138). For Japan, safe and secure sea lanes are imperative. Still, as the authors are quick to note, even though China’s military modernization has accelerated, the United States’ military spending remains about three-and-a-half times that of China’s. Additionally, according to Bowers and Grønning, concern with China’s military modernization has led to Japan reaching out to Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members—particularly the Philippines and Vietnam—who have been embroiled in territorial disputes with China.

In the next chapter, which describes the interplay between popular nationalism and economic interests, James Reilly argues that the actions of Chinese leaders are determined by neither popular, anti-Japan sentiment, nor economic considerations. Instead, as Reilly argues, China’s security policy is increasingly informed by its own “national security objectives” encouraged by China’s rise in “relative” power (p. 170); this relative rise has led to an increasing degree of assertiveness. Reilly points to growing economic interdependence between the two countries. Specifically, bilateral trade increased from 88 billion dollars in 2001 to 330 billion dollars in 2013, and this escalation in trade was mirrored by a similar increase in Japanese investment in China (p. 173). Underscoring the complexity of bilateral commercial relations, Reilly argues how Japanese businesspeople—with investments in China—have been lobbying their government to improve relations. Chung-in Moon’s contribution, on security dynamics and China’s rise, likewise underscores the shifting strategic choices under successive South Korean regimes, from balancing, getting on the bandwagon, and standing alone, to maintaining the status quo. A key determinant in strategic posturing is relative power capabilities of China and the United States.

Finally, the last two chapters in this volume, by M. Taylor Fravel on the South China Sea and Robert S. Ross on Northeast Asia, examine tension in these subregions from the vantage of China-US rivalry. As Fravel illustrates, tensions between China and the United States have shifted since 2008 as both sides have come to tacitly acknowledge and make adjustments to the authority of the other in the South China Sea. In the last chapter, Ross takes a similar approach to “coercive diplomacy”; US policy toward North Korea, which has an impact on China; and China’s territorial disputes with Japan, which call into question the United States’ commitment to Japan (p. 262).

This is a well-integrated volume, and not only because edited volumes on foreign policy usually lend themselves to collaborative publication but also because the chapters are systematically arranged—the earlier conceptual chapters segue into the case study type contributions, which echo arguments made earlier. This edited volume also lends itself to being read as a monograph, that is, from beginning to end. It is, as I noted, a timely contribution; contrary to contemporary alarmist commentary on the rise of China, the chapters in this volume offer insight into the high degree of circumspection that informs inter-state relations in East Asia. Students of East Asian foreign relations and policymakers shall be well served by this volume; extensive referencing and well-placed footnotes make it easy to track down sources. By way of commentary, there are two areas that could probably have been developed further. First, I believe the volume would have benefited from a more direct engagement with foreign policy perspectives from within China, in particular with China’s vast and prolific academic and policymaking community. Second, for a volume published in 2017, and one that focuses on the last decade, I would liked to have seen a more focused discussion on how the transition to Xi’s presidency may have affected China’s rise. Although the transition is tacitly covered in the latter chapters, there may be room for deeper analyses here. These are minor points in an otherwise valuable contribution to the field.

Citation: Hasan Karrar. Review of Ross, Robert S.; Tunsjø, Øystein, eds., Strategic Adjustment and the Rise of China: Power and Politics in East Asia. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. November, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50234

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