Asian Security and the Rise of China: International Relations in an Age of Volatility

Asian Security and the Rise of China

Author(s):  David Martin Jones, Nicholas Khoo and M.L.R. Smith

ISBN:           9781781004616

Publisher:  Edward Elgar

Year:           2013

Price:           £72.00

Reviewed by: Steven Pieragastini, PhD Candidate, Brandeis University, U.S.A.

Jones, Khoo, and Smith have written a very good primer to the challenges the rise of China poses for the East Asian regional order and its various constituent parts. They manage to do so while also presenting a clear, well-considered argument on how the respective actors in this drama are likely to respond. That they intersperse their analysis with humorous asides and clever metaphors is not lost on the reader; preventing the book from becoming a dry overview of the alphabet soup of meetings, agreements, frameworks, and institutions that have defined international relations in East and Southeast Asia in the past 30 years or so. The book seems to have gone to the publisher in the fall of 2012, before Chinese-Japanese tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands reached their apex, before the nationalist Abe Shinzo was elected prime Minister of Japan, and before the even more recent maritime tensions in the South China Seas. Nonetheless, while it could be argued that the authors did not predict the swiftness with which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would begin staking maritime claims, their analysis did correctly predict the general line of Chinese action and the responses of China’s neighbors.

The authors are generally fair to those they disagree with, presenting the arguments of major international relations theorists and East Asian specialists before staking a strong claim with the realist camp against those who imagine that regional or international institutions are remaking the East Asian order. What the reader derives from this book will depend to a large extent on her or his area of specialty. The first two chapters on China’s relationship with the United States and its neighbors in Northeast Asia are mostly valuable for providing an overview of the relationship since 1989 and theoretical food for thought. US-Chinese relations since the end of the Cold War have generally been frosty in spite of rapidly expanding economic ties. The authors point out the paradox by which US-Chinese relations seem to run exactly counter to the initial plans of US Presidential Administrations: the George W. Bush Administration was in many ways a high point in US-PRC relations despite Bush’s generally aggressive foreign policy, while the Obama Administration has seen greater levels of mutual mistrust and tension. There can be little criticism of their observation that “[a]s China rises, the structure of power in Asia is moving towards bipolarity, with China assuming a more influential role in mainland Asia while the US retains its dominance over maritime Asia” (p.55).

While the US-China relationship looms in the background throughout the book, the authors also give appropriate attention to forces largely independent of American influence drawing East and Southeast Asia together. The middle chapters of the book on ASEAN and Australia are particularly valuable and informative for East Asian specialists.  Despite decades of talk about the need for and importance of international institutions and agreements in Southeast Asia, the authors see very little value in ASEAN plus Three, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asian Community, and other schemes which are fundamentally handicapped by the staunch principle of mutual non-interference in internal affairs of member states. On the other hand, the authors show how ASEAN logically grew out of chaos of inter-state warfare in the 1970s and has developed alongside greater economic integration in the region.

The financial crises of 1997 and 2008, part of what the authors call “the new twenty years’ crisis” (p. 196), caused many in the region to wonder whether the Pax Americana was really in their best interests. In the later stages of the Cold War and especially after 1989, Asia moved towards the West/North, international finance, and globalization, producing historic rates of economic growth until 1997. Because of the collapse of this system, which many in the region saw as a set up or at least a let down by international finance, there was a revival of national and regional (pan-Asian) identity against the West/North and a sense that the “Asian model” was superior to unrestrained neoliberalism. By 2008, the Asian region was internally integrated enough (and externally isolated enough) from Wall Street to weather the economic crisis and recession in Europe and the United States. While the West is still struggling to recover from the shocks of 2008 and India, Brazil, Russia, and Turkey all falling flat in the past few years, Asia continues to steam ahead economically.

Asia will be faced by a tremendous paradox in the coming years, as economic growth and integration continue with an ever-larger role being played by China, the very country that most others in the region are suspicious of. At the same time, the underwriter of trade and stability for the past 60 years seems to be irreversibly receding in power and influence; economic sluggishness, public debt, an obstinate Congress, imperial overstretch/fatigue, and a series of unexpected developments in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Eastern Europe have upset the Obama Administration’s attempts to refocus on the Pacific. Although the authors see John Mearsheimer’s model as “arguably too pessimistic” (p. 54), there’s no question of that confrontation between the US and China, involving and perhaps instigated by smaller powers in the region, is a real possibility in the medium to long term. The authors consider whether economic integration, and perhaps regional bodies like ASEAN plus Three, might stay the hand of conflict. The question on every observer’s mind these days is whether trade trumps war in the calculus of national interests (the “calculus of fear” as the authors phrase it, p. 56). Probably as a result of their careful modesty towards making sweeping arguments or predictions, the authors do not examine the usual historical comparisons to the rise of China. Pessimists often point to World War I as a clear example where high-levels of international trade were quickly ignored in the face of nationalism and empire-building. However, a strong case can be made that economic and cultural ties in East Asia today are deeper than in Europe in 1914, and are guided by a more robust set of institutions, norms, and ideologies. Moreover, as the centennial of the First World War is upon us, historians are increasingly convinced that the oft-cited causes of the war do not sufficiently explain why Europe should have gone to war in 1914, a war which was perfectly avoidable until the very last days of July 1914.

This is both heartening and worrisome for assessing risk in East Asia today. China’s leaders are nothing if not calculating, and it is very unlikely that they will decide anytime soon that a war with Japan or the United States is worth the potential economic and political risks, especially after the Obama Administration made a surprisingly strong show of support for Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute. Nonetheless, foreign policy could, akin to the July 1914 Crisis, be hijacked by the military in China (though recent purges and consolidation of power by Xi Jinping makes this less likely) or saber-rattling political factions in the US (but the trend in both parties is decidedly towards reducing global commitments). The Chinese leadership could still be pushed to some nationalistic show of force by domestic political upheaval. It is also possible that international tensions could lead to unilateral economic sanctions, as was the case when the PRC “cut off” rare earth exports Japan in 2010. While it now seems that this “embargo” was instigated by nationalistic customs officials and not central government policy, China’s near-monopoly on these rare earths still allows for the future use of such a tactic. The worrisome analogy here is not 1914 but 1941, when the United States imposed an oil embargo on the Japanese Empire, a decisive factor behind the decision to attack Pearl Harbor. Jones, Khoo, and Martin are pure realists, and make a convincing case for being so. But any realist should also acknowledge that while rational, national self-interest may be the ultimate guiding hand of international relations, wars between superpowers are usually irrational and, in the immediate sense, the result of accidents, misinterpretation, failed diplomacy, and fears of “losing face” once the stakes have been raised.

One flaw of the book is that it does not give enough attention to the historical role of Korea in swinging the balance of power in East Asia. In the past 500 years, Korea has thrice been the battleground on which the fate of the East Asian regional order was decided: first in the 1590s, again in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and again in the early 1950s. Since the normalization of PRC-ROK relations in 1992, China has become the largest trading partner of both Koreas. South Korea and China share interests in continued economic development and historical/territorial disputes with Japan and the leadership of both countries generally maintain good personal relationships. Still, although China has gradually become more critical of North Korea’s nuclear program since 2000, the Chinese leadership is still unwilling, and most likely unable, to act decisively to end the North’s nuclear ambitions (p. 28-29). In addition to the North Korea issue, the South Korean public and elite are increasingly wary of the outsized economic influence and geopolitical ambitions of China (p.50-52). In one of her first major foreign policy decisions, President Park Geun-hye immediately condemned China’s expanded Air Defense Identification Zone in November 2013, refusing to recognize China’s claims and conducting military drills in the area. With Taiwan seemingly moving towards some sort of peaceful reintegration with the mainland, the two most dangerous pitfalls in East Asia are maritime disputes and the possibility of a war on the Korean Peninsula. While both of these could very well lead to armed conflict, any battles for far-flung islets are likely to be brief and limited in scope (especially given the naval capacities of the likely antagonists), whereas a conflict on the Korean Peninsula presents a much greater threat of full-scale land-based warfare. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is also much less predictable and less amenable by diplomatic negotiation than maritime disputes.

Perhaps the best chapter in the book, “East Asia and the northern financial crisis,” examines the likely long-term direction of power dynamics in East Asia in light of the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. The authors first trace and then discard three sets of interpretations of the post-Cold War world: 1) the classic progressive, “meliorist” view of history always improving, moving towards the universalization of liberal democracy, capitalism, and the peaceful sharing of an ever-larger pie; 2) the inevitable rise/return of the East (particularly India and China) to global leadership corresponding to a decline of the decadent and profligate West/North; 3) a messy multipolar world dominated ultimately, and perhaps incapably, by international finance and the inexorable US-China dyad (famously dubbed “Chimerica” by Niall Ferguson). The authors give these interpretations a fair hearing. They seem particularly convinced throughout the book that the West/North must drastically reduce public debt while maintaining preponderant military power if it expects to retain global leadership. Still, the authors are historically informed enough to know that there is nothing inevitable about the movements of history, and that history is a poor predictor of the future. The rapid rise of China is the defining trope of contemporary international relations, but an unexpected financial or political shock could cause an even more rapid collapse. As the authors say in their conclusion, “due modesty in predicting long-term trends, while rare, has much to recommend it.” (p.222)

Suggested Citation:

Pieragastini, Steven (2014). Review of “Asian Security and the Rise of China: International Relations in an Age of Volatility”, by David Martin Jones, Nicholas Khoo and M.L.R. Smith, East Asian Integration Studies Vol. 7, no. 19, Internet file: