Tangled Titans: The United States and China

Tangled Titans: The United States and China

Author:       David Shambaugh

ISBN:            9781442219700

Publisher:  Rowman and Littlefield

Year:            2013

Price:          $39.95


Reviewed by Joseph Eaton, Assistant Professor of History, National Chengchi University, Taiwan

The work of sixteen leading experts on Sino-American relations, Tangled Titans: The United States and China provides a comprehensive and timely re-examination of the world’s most important international relationship. In his preface, editor David Shambaugh explains that the catalyst for the conference and volume was the prevalent anti-Americanism that he perceived during a Fulbright sabbatical year in China in 2009-2010. Having visited China for 32 consecutive years, Shambaugh feared that this was no ordinary low point, that Sino-American relations had experienced a qualitative change for the worse.

In his introduction, “Tangled Titans: Conceptualizing the U.S.-China Relationship”, Shambaugh isolates five historical and cultural factors that continue to shape Sino-American relations: Chinese sensitivity to encroachment on its borders; the Chinese quest for national restoration; Americans’ sense of exceptionalism and paternalism; the Chinese need for “face” in international diplomacy; and the factor of geography, or the United States’ ability to project power in the Asia-Pacific. Rather than being in essence either cooperative or competitive, Shambaugh finds Sino-American relations to be in a phase of “competitive coexistence.” Unfortunately, as he explains, “The competitive elements in the relationship are growing and now becoming primary, while the cooperative ones are secondary and declining” (p. 5).

Nancy Bernkopf Tucker’s chapter on “The Evolution of U.S.-China Relations” sets the historical stage for the chapters that follow. As Tucker perceptively notes of the current situtation, “There has not been an occasion until the eve of the twenty-first century when both countries could simultaneously claim to be strong, prosperous and influential.” She cautions that, “Sino-American relations are rarely as bad or good as they seem” (pp. 45, 46). Tucker, a renowned diplomatic historian, passed away in December 2012, apparently after the book went to press.

In his chapter on “The Rise of China, the United States, and the Future of the Liberal International Order”, G. John Ikenberry provides an optimistic reading of China’s rise. Ikenberry believes that while China may supersede the United States as the world’s preeminent power, the liberal global order (the “liberal ascendency”) that has evolved over the past two centuries developed under the aegis of Great Britain and the United States will survive. While China is ascending, the liberal global structure will have a “double effect” on China in the future: China has no incentive to create chaos nor does China have an alternative – there is no meaningful “China model.”

Ashley J. Tellis’ chapter, “U.S.-China Relations in a Realist World”, gives a different reading from that of Ikenberry, stressing the challenges within Sino-American relations. According to his “realist” reading, Tellis commercial interdependence will not necessary produce harmony, particularly when the United States and China have so many conflicts of interests. In addition, China’s growing military might threatens the United States’ formerly hegemonic presence in the Pacific.

Robert Sutter’s perceptive chapter on “Domestic American Influences on U.S.-China Relations”, tells of changes in China’s, and Taiwan’s status within American politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, Taiwan enjoyed tremendous support in Congress, mitigating American presidents’ efforts to sacrifice ties with the ROC in order to get closer to the PRC. By the 1990s, American policymakers and Taiwan’s “friends” in Congress were less willing to stand up to the PRC. Ironically, Taiwan’s role in American politics has lessened as democratic pluralism and electoral politics has produced a confusion of Taiwanese voices in Washington. While American public opinion remains more negative than positive about China, no particular issue suffices to promote substantial changes in American China policy. The expansion of presidential prerogative over foreign policy during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations also muted China’s critics in Congress.

As Yufun Hao explains in his chapter on the role of “Domestic Chinese Influences on U.S.-China Relations”, the role of the public in Chinese foreign policy has greatly increased since the 1990s. Currently, a variety of actors influences Chinese foreign policy. Netizens, academics, think tanks, tabloids and mass-appeal newspapers all vie for the attention of the foreign policy establishment. Nevertheless, Hao notes that autocratic China still has many “no go zones” regarding foreign policy, subjects that are taboo: “True policy debates over key foreign policy decisions are still not open to the public” (p. 137). Hao explains that public opinion in China usually runs more negative about the United States than official government policy, as seen in reaction to reaction to China’s entry in the World Trade Organization. Chinese public opinion might be a danger to Sino-American relations, particularly if a future Chinese government cannot corral China’s virulent nationalism.

In her chapter, “The Diplomatic Relationship: Substance and Process”, Bonnie S. Glaser gives a detailed outline of U.S.-China diplomacy. Glaser’s analysis includes insightful discussion of differing measures of success in diplomacy. The Chinese, according to Glaser, “measure success in terms of quantity – the number of high-level visits, phone calls, letters, and meetings.” The Americans value “concrete achievements” such as Chinese cooperation at the U.N. or Chinese support for U.S. foreign policy.

Charles W. Freeman III’s chapter, “The Commercial and Economic Relationship”, gives a detailed history of the evolution of Sino-American economic relations and the growing points of contention. The 2008 financial crisis gave many Chinese reasons to believe that the United States had little to offer in the way of economic matters. In fact, Freeman believes that both the American and Chinese economies, long perceived to be complementary, need rebalancing. Freeman fears that negative perceptions of Sino-American economic connections will destroy the fragile consensus on trade, both sides having underestimated the positive impact of economic interdependence.

Terry Lautz’s chapter on “The Cultural Relationship” may be the most significant in Tangled Titans given the importance of (mis)perceptions in Sino-American relations. Images are fundamental to military, economic, and diplomatic relations, and, as Lautz explains, the images underlying Sino-American relations are often incongruous or poisonous: “China views the United states as model, partner, self-serving bully, and hegemonic power. The U.S. sees China either as weak and needy or as threatening and hostile” (p. 211). Lautz’s discussion of public diplomacy, particularly the proliferation of Chinese efforts, including the Confucius Institutes and the difficulties American public diplomatists have at reaching the Chinese public, is especially enlightening.

In his chapter on “The Military-Security Relationship”, Christopher P. Twomey discounts pessimistic views of Sino-American security relations, echoing the assessment of John Ikenberry. Twomey believes that China’s involvement in international institutions and trade will lessen the risk for military confrontation between the U.S. and China, preventing a Cold War-style global rivalry. Nevertheless, given China’s growing military capacities, any conflict, particularly in China’s immediate and intermediate periphery, would be deadly. Twomey’s discussion of China’s “Malacca dilemma” (China’s imported oil comes through the Straits) is particularly insightful.

In his chapter on “U.S.-China Interactions in Asia”, Avery Goldstein traces important changes in perceptions of China’s rise in East Asia. Until about 2008, other nations in East Asia saw China’s expansion in ambivalent terms and were reluctant to choose between Beijing and Washington. Since then, however, China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas, and muted response to North Korean aggression, has pushed South Korea, the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam towards the United States. Goldstein cautions, however, that it is uncertain that the current Asian turn to Washington is permanent.

Shelley Rigger, in her chapter on “Taiwan in U.S.-China Relations”, traces the history of ROC-US affairs, providing especially perceptive analysis of the impact of Taiwanese politics. Democratic Taiwan speaks with many voices, complicating Sino-American relations. Taiwan’s future role in Sino-American relations is a complex variable that confounds easy understanding. Rigger gives an insightful overview and analysis of the various possibilities for an updated American policy towards Taiwan.

In their chapter on “U.S.-China Interactions in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Latin America”, David Shambaugh and Dawn Murphy find that China’s rise has meant that, “global governance is entering a challenging and less predictable era” (p. 363).Yet, despite points of contention – including Chinese support for “rogue” states such as Iran and Sudan –  China and the United States have opportunities to work in parallel on issues such as anti-terrorism and public health. Similarly, in her chapter on “U.S.-China Interactions in Global Governance and International Organizations”, Rosemary Foot explains that the U.S. and China have sometimes effectively worked together in international bodies, including the U.N.

The final section of Tangled Titans addresses prospects for future Sino-American relations. Wu Xinbo, in his chapter on “Chinese Visions of the Future of U.S.-China Relations” gives an optimistic forecast given the deepening of economic relations and increasingly symmetrical relations between the two nations. Yet, the increasingly complicated decision-making process in Chinese foreign policy and especially the issue of Taiwan threaten better relations. Harry Harding’s insightful chapter, “American Visions of the Future of U.S.-China Relations”, rounds out the volume. By Harding’s estimation, popular perceptions that current relations Sino-American relations are unfair and lack mutual benefit threatens further cooperation.

Students of international relations and Sino-American relations will find Tangled Titans to be a timely overview written by top scholars in the field. The volume’s diversity of perspectives and sometimes-uncertain tone is a sign of the times, of the unknown China’s rise and of changes in the dynamics of trans-Pacific relations. The sometimes-conflicting interpretations of Sino-American relations are an indication that policies towards China (and perhaps Chinese policies towards the US and its allies) need be multifaceted. The authors are cautious in predicting the future, not surprising given the unknown qualities of China’s rise in East Asia and its impact on the dynamics of Sino-American relations.

That Sino-American affairs are influenced by so many suspicions and misperceptions – on both sides of the Pacific – is disconcerting. Shambaugh dedicates the volume “To America’s China watchers and China’s America watchers, in their continual and challenging effort to interpret the ‘Other’.” Tangled Titans will help to alleviate some of the obscurity in the world’s most important strategic relationship.

Suggested citation:

Joseph Eaton (2014). Review of “Tangled Titans: The United States and China”, by David Shambaugh, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.32, Internet file: https://asianintegration.org/index.php?option=com_joomlib&task=view&id=147&Itemid=75