The Master Plan: How to Avoid a Dangerous U.S.-China Rivalry

A new book suggests an innovative approach to avoiding dangerous rivalry and promoting stability between Washington and Beijing.

Book Review: Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century

By: James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon

Princeton University Press, 272 Pages, $29.95

James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon’s recently released volume is hardly the first analysis of the U.S.-China power transition, but it is one of the most important to date. In Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century, Steinberg and O’Hanlon offer an approach to limiting competition and reinforcing strategic cooperation between the United States and China. Free of the teleological fatalism common to most structural power transition arguments, as well as the unguarded optimism of interdependence-based analyses, the authors begin with the premise that in the 21st century, US-China conflict is possible, but not ineluctable. Theirs is a scholarly, accessible effort to lay out proposals to help Washington and Beijing avoid arms racing and crisis instability by providing reassurance about each state’s strategic goals, mitigating potential security dilemmas. The analysis makes no a priori assumptions about Beijing or Washington’s long-term intentions, but persuasively contends that the two powers may nonetheless be able to avoid counterproductive hedging and persistent rivalry.

The authors are uniquely positioned to conduct this analysis. Steinberg, a former Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor, now Dean of Syracuse’s Maxwell School, has extensive experience conducting diplomacy with Beijing and is intimately acquainted with the most sensitive issues in the US-China relationship. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a leading analyst of operational and strategic issues. The authors’ expertise combines to produce a work that is systematic and rigorous, while being clear and pragmatic.

At the core of Steinberg and O’Hanlon’s argument on how to avoid crisis and arms race instability is the idea of “restraint.” Without undermining their own national interests, they contend, China and the United States can forgo potentially threatening technologies, doctrines, and policies to reveal and reinforce benign intentions towards one another. The authors focus primarily on unilateral, informal limitations that each country may choose to adopt. As in a multi-move prisoner’s dilemma, if voluntary restraint results in reciprocity, long-term bilateral cooperation may be sustainable. In addition to restraint, Steinberg and O’Hanlon also emphasize “reinforcement,” or actions that make declared assurances more credible, “transparency” to help each side understand the other’s capabilities, and “resilience,” so that each side is less vulnerable to preemption or escalation. They also underscore, but devote less attention to “resolve,” which they define as each side clarifying the objects over which it is willing to fight.

After detailing the sources of conflict in the US-China relationship, Steinberg and O’Hanlon explain how their strategic reassurance framework may be put into practice in several key areas. These include restraint in military spending and modernization, approaches to enhance crisis stability in most-likely regional military contingencies, measures to reduce competition in the nuclear, space, and cyber domains, and suggestions for restraint in the areas of forward basing, deployments, and operations. Each of these chapters yields two dozen concrete policy recommendations, which are collected in a useful appendix. The recommendations range from fairly modest (advanced notification of weapons tests, and military exercises and deployments in sensitive areas) to much more ambitious (a commitment by the US to recast Air-Sea Battle as Air Sea Operations; a Chinese promise of peaceful resolution over Taiwan). Although some observers on both sides of the Pacific may reject some of these recommendations as too accommodating, one is left with the feeling that there are myriad sensible, specific ways that Washington and Beijing can attempt to mitigate the risk of conflict without resorting to inflexible, formal arrangements that require exhaustive negotiations or intrusive verification procedures.

Beyond its constructive pragmatism, however, Steinberg and O’Hanlon’s analysis raises several additional questions for scholars and strategists. How can the US and China can detect true restraint in the other as well as the intention behind it? How can the United States convince the Chinese to agree to the authors’ proposals given the pressures and incentives of the power transition? What precisely are the implications of strategic reassurance in the bilateral US-China relationship for US alliance and deterrence policies? I briefly consider each of these in turn.