China’s Asia: Triangular Dynamics Since the Cold War
By Niharika Yadav
Reading Time: 4 Minutes
Why “China’s Asia?” Commencing with an atypical question that makes up for an equally riveting title, Lowell Dittmer, a professor of Political Science at the University of California, probes the fields of history, geopolitics and international relations in his new book – China’s Asia: Triangular Dynamics Since the Cold War. Published in April 2018, the book aims to analyze “the thrust of China’s Asia policy” in the Post-Cold War World and its implications on global politics. Dittmer emphasizes on the making and breaking of Chinese dalliances with regional and global powers alike, and accurately captures shifts in power balances across Asia. His central argument seeks to display a clear recasting of Asian geopolitical control from “America’s control over Asia” to “China’s control over the region”. For the same, he centres his claim in empirical/historical evidences of Chinese rejuvenation to realise the “Old China Dream” – one that undoes the ‘century of humiliation’ (bainian gouchi), one that assures due deference (like regard to emboldening territorial claims in international waters, continual threats to neighbouring territories and assertion in ASEAN policymaking) and one that takes it back and heightens it further from the era of China’s ethnocentric, centripetal and hegemonic Tribute System.
The book is divided into nine chapters, each detailing Chinese diplomatic relations with the United States, Russia and more than ten South Asian countries. Through each chapter, the author describes the Chinese struggle to attain Asian dominance by accounting for a persisting presence of an outlying power, the United States of America.
Most contemporary literature seeks to explain South Asian international relations by studying individual decision makers, political units (nation-state, country) or competitive dyads. These frameworks, while being successful for certain proposed hypotheses, prove to be inadequate in situating opposing powers in a climate of dynamic correspondences. For instance, the dyadic hypothesis that “countries will avoid active conflict with other countries of comparable power and choose to fight countries that are weaker than them” fails to gauge the impact of alliances and the international cost of conflict.Empirical analysis shows that conflict with evidently weaker countries has been desisted to avoid confrontation with bigger military powers succouring the weaker country, as has been the case with North Korea circumventing conflict with South Korea to avoid conflict with the USA.
The strength of Dittmer’s book lies in its application of a more technical, comparable and multidimensional framework – the Triangular Analysis – to help readers understand global power dynamics. Through this framework, Dittmer extends the analysis of two player-games and bipolar relations to multi-party, global interactions in which every bilateral communication is overshadowed by the leveraged presence of a third party.
Dittmer highlights that despite the geographical aloofness and absence of bilateral border issues, American and Chinese interests repeatedly come to blows over various issues. The eventual confrontation ensures a persistent tension between America – the hegemon – and China – the rising power – that makes triangular foreign policy, a logical outcome. Dittmer does a cogent job of establishing this tension by underlining a trail of US intercessions in most bilateral/multilateral interactions of China with the rest of Asia. From the China-India-US triangle to the China-Russia-US triangle, China always sees the United States “scheming, manipulating and impeding its road to the China dream.” After evidencing this bipolarity, Dittmer goes on to provide his primary argument – balance of power has and will eventually shift to China’s advantage, such that it surpasses USA’s domination in the Asia-Pacific and transforms into the fulcrum of global polity or in his words ‘a global pole’.
While Dittmer’s arguments are rooted in a deep sense of optimism regarding China’s geopolitical trajectory, his claims aren’t unfounded. They have their basis in Chinese readiness to regain, return and resound the ‘Old China Dream’, the soaring economic progress, the increasing influence of China in South Asian geopolitics and a growing stockpile of advanced weaponry. Dittmer attaches no normative judgements to the effects a Chinese ascent can have on global polity but does leave the reader with a relevant dilemma – What, in fact, will be the nature of this ascent?
If one refers to the Greek political philosopher Thucydides for an answer, it is distinctly agreeable that the ascent will notbe peaceful.Thucydides’ trap, a term coined by Harvard Professor Graham T. Allison, refers to a universal behavioral principal in international politics that claims power to be a zero-sum game, such that the rise of any country in the presence of a dominant power, always leads to war. The confidence of the rising power and paranoia of the dominant power leads to a vicious cycle that threatens the balance of power in the global stage.
This view leads to the conclusion that China’s rise as an anathematic hegemon of America would lead to a hostile power transition and an active military confrontation.
The countering view, that I personally am in the favour of, holds active confrontation to be a remote possibility. This is because, in the post-nuclear modern state, more than ever, countries have adequate incentive to avoid confrontation and to use diplomatic, geopolitical tactics to advance their interests. The reasons for the same are nuclear deterrence and global trade. The accumulation of nuclear powers has made both political actors aware of the cost of war and the mutually assured destruction that shall follow. As a matter of fact, the Nuclear Taboo, an ethical call to desist nuclear weapons has arisen as a collective cultural norm. It has long overpowered countries’ willingness to nuclearize a war and has threatened nations to be deemed as ethical outliers, making the taboo more of a deterrence than deterrence itself. Secondly, Thucydides’ trap assumes the two countries to be mutually independent actors whose political utility is determined solely by their own preservation. This is not true of the globalised world that depends on multiple actors for security and trade considerations. For instance, the trade war between the US and China has resulted in a barrage of tariffs on Chinese Exports, leading the Chinese to devalue their currency to risky, low levels to maintain the flow of exports.Geo-political instability since the advent of the Trump administration has shaken investor confidence leading to a 92% year-on-year drop in FDI in the first half of 2018. This drop can obstruct Chinese projects that rely heavily on foreign investment like the OBOR initiative and “Made in China 2025” plan among others. Despite these economic altercations, China doesn’t stand to suffer a sustained loss as the strategy can never become a long-term policy and is bound to limit itself after a period of time. Falling exports from China would reduce supply of consumer goods in the American economy, leading to hiked prices and a boost in inflation. Such dependence, economic and otherwise, ensures that the benefits of America and China hinge on each other’s preservation, forcing them to avoid confrontation. Zheng Bijian’s ‘peaceful rise’ to ‘Great Power Status’, thus seems like a geopolitical reality.
Dittmer’s book proves to be a comprehensive text that traces the history of China from the beginning of its ethnographic civilization to the pandemic shadow of the Red dragon under Xi. It provides an analytical account of Chinese progression and leaves it up to the reader to derive normative implications from the account’s conclusions. A detailed and perceptive read, ‘China’s Asia’ warrants valuable consideration from anyone willing to take a glimpse into the making of modern Asia. Unlike most historical accounts of global polity, Dittmer’s book proves to be an onward looking text, binding centuries of analysis into a comprehensive account that understands the resurgence of Asia’s “central kingdom” and the dynamic changes it has spawned over the past half century.