Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the Twenty- First Century by James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon, Princeton, RRP£19.95/RRP$29.95, 272 pages

As Europeans mark the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, today’s building arms race in east Asia carries uncomfortable echoes. For a rising Wilhelmine Germany, read a newly assertive China; for a declining British empire, read a US soon to be displaced by the Middle Kingdom as the world’s largest economy.

Inexact as they are, the parallels – a shifting power balance in a region of rising nationalisms, mutual suspicion, territorial disputes and unsettled scores – are unnerving. As James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon observe in Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, confrontations between established and rising powers have been the stuff of geopolitics ever since Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta during the fifth century BC.

The world’s attention has lately been drawn to Vladimir Putin’s attempt to turn back the clock to the end of the cold war. Russia’s march into Ukraine is an ugly sideshow. The history of the 21st century will be written by the relationship between the US and China.

One school of thought – tracing its roots to Thucydides’s “realism” – says that one way or another conflict is inevitable. Another, that China will push a declining US out of the western Pacific much as Theodore Roosevelt forced the retreat of the British navy from the western Atlantic in the opening years of the 20th century.

Steinberg, dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and until 2011 deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, and O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, offer a more subtle perspective. For these two scholars, clashes between great powers are not an immutable fact of history. As those who have been revisiting the causes of the first world war will know, the three unpredictable “Ms” of great power relations – misjudgment, mistrust and miscalculation – loom large in past confrontations. So too does weak leadership.

The authors are in no doubt about the risks, as American exceptionalism, with its emphasis on the spread of individual freedom and democracy, meets what President Xi Jinping has called “the great revival of the Chinese nation”. Washington has no intention of quitting the region any time soon. To the contrary, it has been buttressing its longstanding alliance system with Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia. For its part, Beijing is determined to expunge what it sees as nearly two centuries of humiliation – a cause of tension with neighbours such as Japan and the Philippines, as well as rivalry with the US.

There are plenty of potential flashpoints – from the disputed Japanese-controlled Senkaku (in Chinese, Diaoyu) islands in the East China Sea to Taiwan and the Korean peninsula. In the authors’ description, “Chinese professions of a peaceful rise and the parallel American support for a strong and prosperous China have done little to dispel mutual suspicions.”

The analysis is scholarly as well as accessible, marking out the potential points of conflict while avoiding the glib certainties of much commentary on the implications of China’s rise. What sets this book apart, however, is its intelligent effort to chart a feasible path for the relationship that could prevent inevitable competition hardening into unavoidable conflict.

The “resolve” of the title refers to the need for both sides to be clear about what the Chinese call “core” national interests and what westerners refer to as “red lines”. Ambiguity can create its own dangerous dynamic, as we have seen from the uncertain western response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

The “strategic reassurance” is the more difficult part. How can each side persuade the other that its goal is not hegemonic – that competition can coexist with co-operation? “It is entirely plausible”, the authors argue, “that the competition can be limited in ways to avoid the worst outcomes, particularly armed conflict.” Plausible, but not easy.

They suggest a range of possibilities, some drawn from the diplomacy of the cold war, when the US and Soviet Union agreed arms control pacts and confidence-building measures even at the height of ideological struggle. Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” approach to Moscow offers one model of strategic reassurance.

Some understandings exist – as in America’s self-imposed limits on arms sales to Taiwan or China’s essentially defensive nuclear posture. Steinberg and O’Hanlon suggest a number of ways they could be extended, including to the realms of cyber warfare and maritime strategy.

Mutual interest – in sustaining an open world economy, marshalling the global effort to manage climate change and preserving a rule-based international order – argues for a relationship as co-operative as it is competitive, or at very least for respectful coexistence. What’s required above all is persistent statecraft and the exercise of self-restraint in order to break the dynamic of military escalation. If policy makers on either side of the Pacific are looking for a handbook – and they should be – Steinberg and O’Hanlon have written one.

Philip Stephens is an FT columnist

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article