|Steinberg and O’Hanlon’s Strategic reassurance and resolve
Daily: Daily Times
A conflict between a rising power such as China and an established power such as the
United States (US) can be forestalled by employing strategic reassurance. This is the
central theme of James Steinberg and Michael E. O’Hanlon’s book, Strategic reassurance
and resolve: US-China relations in the Twenty-First Century, Published by Princeton
University Press in 2014. Steinberg is professor of social science, international relations
and law at Syracuse University, and Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
and specializes in national security policy. This opinion piece discusses the central theme
of the book.
The key word in the title of the book is reassurance: the act of dispelling someone’s doubts
or fears. From page 6 to page 10, Steinberg and O’Hanlon explain four tools, viz. restraint,
reinforcement, transparency, and resilience which may contribute to strategic reassurance.
Resolve follows reassurance, though both are more comprehensible in their nudity than in
the shadow of strategic. It is the resolve of a country to keep on reassuring its eventual
adversary not to be fearful of its intent and actions; instead, keep considering the intent
and actions cooperative. Reassurance is considered helpful when the mere perception of
fear surpasses the fear itself.
The necessity for relying on the word reassurance is mentioned on page 2 while explaining
the cause of the Peloponnesian War in the words of Thucydides, an Athenian historian:
“What made the war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this
caused Sparta,” an ancient Greek city-state which defeated Athens in the 5th century BC. It
means, not only the rise of Athens, but also the fear sprouting from the rise frightened
Sparta and consequently made war inevitable. In other words, the problem is not only with
the rise (of China) but also with the fear the rise (of China) causes.
On the same page, Steinberg and O’Hanlon separate the rise of China from the fear of the
rise of China by further saying: “The United States may not be fearful of China, per se, but
its leaders certainly recognize the tectonic implications of the rise of the People’s Republic
China (PRC) for international relations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond”. Here,
Steinberg and O’ Hanlon think that the major area of implications is specifically the Asia-
Pacific region where China is aspiring for the unification with Taiwan. One reason for the
same may be that the military prowess of China is more palpable in this region than
anywhere else. Secondly, the paragraph says that the rise of a country is one thing
whereas the fear attached to the rise is a different thing. That is, both the rise and the
attendant fear can be seen in isolation from each other. This point may be true if the rise of
a country takes place, say, only in the economic field such as Japan or Germany, but in
case of China the corresponding rise has also taken place in the military field. Hence the
vulnerability of the argument.
On page 4, Steinberg and O’Hanlon write: “Competition is inevitable in the U.S.-China
relationship… but few worry that these competitive dimensions of our relationship will lead
to outright conflict … [for instance, in] the military and strategic spheres [at the core of
which are] nuclear, conventional military, space, cyber, and maritime issues – that could
trigger destabilizing arms races, foster crises, and eventually lead to conflict”. Here, the
issues identified are related to the rise of China and not to the fear of the rise of China.
This is how Steinberg and O’Hanlon have strayed from the vital line of their own argument:
bifurcation between the rise and the fear of the rise of China. Secondly, Steinberg and O’
Hanlon have laid emphasis here on creating a long distance between competition, which
they consider inevitable, and conflict, which they optimistically consider avoidable by using
restraint, reinforcement, transparency and resilience. Nevertheless, this paragraph
indicates that whether or not there is a fear of China or the fear of the rise of China, the
fear of the US-China conflict is quite higher.
In the book, Steinberg and O’Hanlon have tried to see US-China relations in a narrowed
and recluse sphere, though some inferences have been drawn from the relations between
the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, Steinberg and O’Hanlon
have failed on three important counts. First, it is not only the established dominant power
which feels insecure from a rising power but it is also the countries having stakes in the
established dominant order that feel threatened. The possibility of an unpredictable future
that could force readjustment by tinkering with a given comfort zone peeve the countries
enjoying monopoly. The sheer possibility of the disorder, before a new order takes root,
unnerves the beneficiaries of an existing order. The formation of the NATO in April 1949
may be a case in point.
Secondly, aspirations of several countries get attached to a rising power in any imminent
emerging order, thereby making the borders of the ensuing fear broadened and diversified.
The rise of a country like China may keep on marshalling the stakes of other countries. For
instance, in July 2005, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) denied the US an
observer status which could have led to its full membership. Moreover, the SCO asked the
US to withdraw its forces from Uzbekistan – a backlash to the purported US involvement in
supporting unrest in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Thirdly, the fear of the rise of China can be minimized if the irritants such as the issue of
Taiwan already hurting the US-China relations are tempered or solved. On the one hand,
on page 70, Steinberg and O’Hanlon writes, “[M]aintaining Taiwanese de facto (if not de
jure) independence is a major barrier to China’s military expansion beyond the so-called
first island chain (and therefore key to continued U.S. maritime primacy)”, while on the other
hand, from pages 100 to 101, they write, “China should not ‘need’ a defence budget more
than half as big as that of the United States…Of course, such a 2:1 ratio could not be
permanent... [T]his ratio would prove at most a temporary zone of convergence in a longer
historical trajectory”. Here, Steinberg and O’Hanlon may put the US in China’s shoes to
discover if the answer lies in reassurance.
Back to columns in 2016