Author(s): S. Mahmud Ali
Reviewed by Gwenola Ricordeau, Ph.D., Associate professor, University of Lille, France / visiting professor, University of the Philippines.
S. Mahmud Ali, who is the former Asia-Pacific editorial coordinator for BBC World Service and now an associate at the London School of Economics, has published several books about Sino-US relations, international relations and diplomacy in Asia. In Asia-Pacific Security Dynamics in the Obama Era, he examines the critical changes to the Asia-Pacific security architecture emerging in the context of shifts in the global order and the Obama Administration’s major strategic innovation. S. Mahmud Ali offers a detailed overview of the policies of Japan, Australia, India and Russia towards the evolving Sino-US diarchy, while recording US’ and China’s contrasting approaches to these allies and possible adversaries. The narrative outlines the dangers posed by extreme nationalist dialectics in an interdependent milieu.
What did the changes in the Beijing-Washington relations entail in policy terms and how would it manifest itself? How would it affect US relations with key regional allies – especially Japan, Australia and India? What would be the consequence for the post-1990s regional security architecture framed, fashioned and led by Washington? How would that alter the global security order and the way it was managed? S. Mahmud Ali attempts to seek answers to these questions, drawing largely on primary documents from ministries of foreign affairs and defense in United States, China, Japan, Australia, India and Russia.
The book is organized in six chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, each of which discuss in detail one aspect of the international security system during the Obama presidency.
The prologue (“Shifting tectonic plates”) maps out how the election of Barack Obama marked a radical shift in US political alignment. He reviews the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific inheritance, in particular the political demise of leaders who had forged with President George W. Bush a “democratic alliance” in Asia before Bush himself receded from the scene.
In the second chapter (“Obama’s early initiatives and Beijing’s response”), the author examines the nature of the initial Sino-US dynamic in the Obama era and how the relative US “decline” and China’s “rise” color the security discourses. He gives a detailed overview of the abandonment of a hegemonic-unilateralist perspective for a more multilateralist view of the security system by the US while the US military have identified China as the most likely peer-rival. The pursuit of a collaborative “partnership” hints at diverging expectations, since China saw the alliance-based security architecture as “Cold War-oriented”. Despite the US and China identify each other as the source of the most serious threats to respective national security interests, the Sino-US bipolarity implies a complex balance between strategic competition and economic interdependence.
The third chapter (“The Japan-Australia-India strategic triangle”) examines the fluidity of security interactions among regional secondary powers that assumed increasing prominence. These actors developed security inter-relationships parallel to their alliance with Washington. The resulting “Quad”, a strategic innovation, emerged as a countervailing front against China’s growing power. “Quad” members intensify naval collaboration in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and various straits while maritime territorial disputes acquiring escalatory potential. The region’s strategic polarization has been reinforced by the US’s tacit acknowledgment of India as a nuclear power, India’s growing defense links with Japan and Australia and a steady coalescence of an undeclared “democratic coalition” around China. All four allies were formally liberal democracies that gave them a “value-based” ideational platform on which to fashion their joint endeavors against unnamed foes.
In the fourth chapter (“The Kremlin’s gamesmanship”), S. Mahmud Ali investigates the dynamics of reshaping US-Russian interactions. Despite residual mistrust, the US and Russia agreed in placing their Cold War legacy behind them and in cooperating in areas of shared interest: as an example, they settled on further reduction of strategic nuclear weapons and on collaboration on a range of other issues. A major shift in US-Russian interactions is exemplified by Moscow’s grant of free air-passage for US military flights into Afghanistan, unprecedented joint counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan, policies coordination towards North Korea and Iran or a joint US-Canada-Russia air forces exercise.
The fifth chapter (“ASEAN’s security nightmares”) explores regional implications of changing Sino-US dynamics in the western Pacific and the US’s determination to maintain its regional primacy that results in US cultivating strong multilateral and bilateral ties with ASEAN member-states. Obama administration asserted US’ leadership, promising aid and offering defense-diplomatic support to actors with territorial disputes with China. Besides ASEAN sought to establish its “centrality” in the emergent regional security architecture, it maintains its cohesion in the face of contrary pressures from US, China and India. The congruence of US “national interests” with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore reinforced the coalescence of a containment coalition around China.
The Epilogue (“A new Cold War?”) investigates the likely outcome of the systematic shifts in the Asia-Pacific region that appears to be more important to the US now than ever before. Obama and his Administration frequently asserted US was a “resident Pacific power” and would remain so (p. 158). Trans-Pacific relations have been President Barack Obama’s administration strategic top priority and it has been determined to maintain US leadership role (not only in the military realm) amidst systematic fluidity generates transitional uncertainties.
The book ends with considerations over the end of the five-century-long era of Western domination of world affairs and the forces drawing the contours of the emergent new paradigm. Trans-Pacific relations and the competitive-cooperative Sino dynamics are reshaping the systematic core of the international security, economic and commercial architecture. Probably for an extended period, no major decision of global import could be effected without a consensus between China and US. Asia-Pacific Security Dynamics in the Obama Era concludes with observations on the loss of definition and clarity as the system evolves with multiple actors bidding for influence. The competitive-cooperative trends produce an occasionally confusing strategic milieu. Because of a globalized and interdependent environment, the system is entering another period of transitional turbulence from which would emerge a new security architecture. Since the emergence of a super-power bipolarity in 1945, systematic transformation of this scale had only been noted twice: first, in 1971-72 when Washington and Beijing established a covert coalition against the Soviet Union, and in 1989-91 when bipolarity give way to virtual unipolarity.
S. Mahmud Ali’s meticulous examination of the international security system in Asia during the Obama presidency is to be praised. But Asia-Pacific Security Dynamics in the Obama Era does have some shortcomings. Its focus on very contemporary and versatile events have their own advantages and disadvantages. Although the book would not be appealing for those without enough background in history and diplomacy, it will be of interest to those in search for enlightened analysis of international relations nowadays. But the author should be requested to write over the next few years a continuation of Asia-Pacific Security Dynamics in the Obama Era.
Asia-Pacific Security Dynamics in the Obama Era will be for sure of interest to practitioners of international security diplomacy and to scholars of internal politics, international relations, diplomacy and Asian and American politics. The book is generally clear, well written and well-organized, which may make the book useful for graduate students.