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Book Review: Taming Sino–American Rivalry

Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University Press --


Taming Sino–American Rivalry, Feng Zhang and Richard Ned Lebow. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 272 pp.

The “official mind in Washington,” according to a recent report, has come to hold that “unyielding conflict” between the United States and China has long been inevitable given “China’s singular objective of recovering its traditional primacy in Asia and, when possible, globally.” With the “residual sentiment surviving from China’s Cold War partnership against the Soviet Union” now dissolved, the United States, heretofore distracted with other objectives, is now rejecting the “liberal solutions” attempted in the Clinton, Bush, and (early) Obama administrations and refocusing on “checkmating this evolving threat” through military, economic, and technological efforts aimed foremost at preserving American “primacy” in the Indo-Pacific and across the world.1

This shift to hard competition, plainly underway, is neither necessary nor wise according to the argument laid out in Taming Sino–American Rivalry by Feng Zhang, a Chinese professor, and Richard Ned Lebow, a former professor at the US Naval War College now teaching in the United Kingdom. They argue, to the contrary, that the shift to a deterrence-centered conflict-ripe relationship is based on “‘fake’ history” (200) and a clash of national egos rather than actual interests (3) and outline a threefold strategy of deterrence, reassurance, and diplomacy intended to manage conflict in the short term and resolve it eventually.

At the heart of Zhang and Lebow’s argument, and the wider disagreement between their approach and that favored by the “official mind in Washington” and indeed, the “official mind in Beijing,” is the claim that “leaders in both countries can develop a constructive strategic framework to ease competition, manage conflict, and reach an accommodation without giving up any of their meaningful goals” (2; emphasis added). This is a bold claim, and the contours of it are scrutinized below. However, it must be said that the quoted formulation is equivocal in nature. This leads to some problems in the authors’ analysis, which is intended to disprove the assertions of power transition theory.

Wilhelmine Germany, for instance, is said not to have been “seriously threatened by rising powers” and to have acted from “perceptions of strength, not of weakness and threat” (16); but to the contrary, solid evidence shows that by 1914, Europeans understood that German military power was at its peak and would significantly decline in the coming years as military reforms were implemented in France, Russia, and Belgium, dooming any German military strategy of victory.2 Given the political culture of the time and Austria’s declining position in the Balkans, Germany’s leaders interpreted this power transition as threatening, a judgment that may be dismissed in retrospect but also one that would have been made by any Great Power of the era. The moral of the story is what is “meaningful” depends on cultural dispositions, apprehensions, political pressures, and individual idiosyncrasies. This is the great theme emphasized, for instance, in A.J.P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe.3

The boldest chapters of Taming Sino–American Rivalry fearlessly critique both American and Chinese foreign policy “mistakes.” Zhang and Lebow put forward what must be one of the most even-handed critiques of the two countries’ policies ever attempted. In regard to American policies, they argue that the pursuit of military and economic hegemony/dominance in the Asia-Pacific, as illustrated by the Pivot to Asia, AirSea Battle, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and maritime surveillance have fueled Chinese insecurity; that the United States has failed to acknowledge that China has the right to have core interests (even if what they are might still be discussed); and that despite attempts in the early years of the Obama administration to build a more stable relationship, the United States never established a coherent strategy that might accomplish this.

In regard to Chinese policies, the criticism is even more specific. China should have avoided exaggerating American decline after 2008. It should have censured North Korea in 2010. It should have welcomed the early “strategic reassurance” overtures from the Obama administration. Beijing should not have announced an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea in November 2013 even as it sought to promote a “new model of great power relations,” and it should have proposed concrete steps for progress alongside its slogan for redefining the bilateral relationship. Chinese leaders ought not to have broken the deal that ended the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012. Beijing should have considered the strategic costs to implementing its South China Sea island-building campaign from 2013–2015, which surely outweighed any tactical benefit, and Pres. Xi Jinping certainly should not have untruthfully stated (in 2015) that the islands would not be militarized. Xi’s “Asian security concept” speech in May 2014 was a mistake that reinforced the growing shift in Washington’s assessment of China’s rise, as was China’s long-standing inability or unwillingness to clarify the nature of its Nine-Dashed Line claim.

Zhang and Lebow believe that these American and Chinese mistakes, variously caused by political culture and domestic politics, are the cause of the increasingly conflictual Sino–American relationship. The solution, they argue, is to deemphasize deterrence, which history shows fails when leaders fear loss, when they are constrained by domestic incentives, and when they distort and misperceive the balance of power. Furthermore, defining a relationship by deterrence, they explain, “can intensify competition by encouraging the defender to develop an exaggerated concern for its bargaining reputation” (107). Instead, Zhang and Lebow argue Washington and Beijing should adopt a policy of “minimal deterrence” built on a “diversified, defensive, and denial-oriented force structure” (114) and reorient their efforts toward strategies of reassurance and diplomacy.

If deterrence is about increasing the threat to an adversary, reassurance is about decreasing mutual fear. Such proposals include announcing irrevocable commitments, developing norms of competition, and building security regimes that make inadvertent war less likely. Specific proposals include China unilaterally clarifying its claims in the South China Sea, China and the United States working toward a de-escalation of the reoccurring dispute over military navigation in exclusive economic zones, and a more general redefinition of great-power competition and regional influence as potentially positive-sum rather than existential. If reassurance is aimed foremost at conflict management, diplomacy holds out the possibility of conflict resolution. Zhang and Lebow suggest a catalyst for successful diplomacy, which redirects relations from competition toward coexistence, might come in the form of a war-scare but contend that unified diplomatic leadership on both sides would be necessary to convert the possibility into a reality.

Reflecting their rejection of structural inevitability, Zhang and Lebow conclude with an assessment of “cautious optimism” (193). Given their assessment of systemic and wide-ranging mistakes on both the Chinese and American sides, one must ask if such a conclusion is warranted. Would the majority of Chinese foreign policy elites and policy makers agree that in the past 10 years alone China has made at least 10 serious foreign policy mistakes? Have they learned from these mistakes? Will Chinese intellectuals even be able to read Zhang and Lebow’s analysis? (So far, it does not appear there is a convenient way to access the book in China.)

According to You Ji’s analysis,4 in 2017, when the Nineteenth Central Military Commission was formed, Xi’s preeminence was unquestioned (this stands in contrast with the situation in 2012). Nonetheless, it is by no means obvious China’s military policy has become more restrained over the past three years, as implied by the assertiveness-as-a-technique-of-consolidating-power hypothesis as developed in the book. Nor does there appear to be much evidence Chinese foreign policy is about to shift course toward what Zhang and Lebow would consider rational; to the contrary, China seems to be experimenting with how many countries it can anger simultaneously.5

The same question can be put to American elites: how many would agree that the objective of primacy in the Indo-Pacific is mistaken and that the United States must decenter from deterrence? The question can be answered with confidence: not many. On this point, Ashley Tellis is correct in his construal of the American “official mind,” which has collectively turned to embrace a great-power competition where even rather innocuous Chinese initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, are securitized while the language and categories of the Cold War are revived. If “checkmate” is the goal, then is there really any need for reassurance and diplomacy except perhaps as decoys to a game centrally defined by deterrence and compellence?

That World War I was not structurally inevitable is unquestionably correct, and it is true that there are many silly things said about “power transition theory.” However, this hardly supports the supposition that Sino–American rivalry is likely to be tamed. On this point, one should recall Paul Schroeder’s evaluation of World War I: objectively, “strategies and tactics were still available to the great powers that might have averted a collision by changing crucial prevailing mindsets,” but even so, subjectively, “by reason of wrong beliefs, hubris, and folly too broadly and deeply anchored in the reigning political culture to be recognized, much less examined and changed,” it was inevitable.6

Jared Morgan McKinney, PhD

Instructor/Professor of National Security Studies

Air Command and Staff College (eSchool)

Air University


Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.



1 Ashley J. Tellis, “The Return of U.S.-China Strategic Competition,” in Strategic Asia 2020: U.S.-China Competition for Global Influence, ed. Ashley J. Tellis, Alison Szalwinski, and Michael Wills (Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2019), 11, 5, 16, 20, 30, 43; also see Michèle A Flournoy, “How to Prevent a War in Asia: The Erosion of American Deterrence Raises the Risk of Chinese Miscalculation,” Foreign Affairs, 18 June 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/.

2 David Stevenson, “Land Armaments in Europe, 1866–1914,” in Arms Races in International Politics: From the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century, ed. Thomas Mahnken, Joseph Maiolo, and David Stevenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 41–60.

3 A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 17.

4 You Ji, “How Xi Jinping Dominates Elite Party Politics: A Case Study of Civil-Military Leadership Formation,” China Journal 84 (July 2020): 1–28, https://doi.org/10.1086/708647.

5 Laura Silver, Kat Delvin, and Christine Huang, “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries,” Pew Research Center, 6 October 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/.

6 Paul W. Schroeder, “Embedded Counterfactuals and World War I as an Unavoidable War,” in Systems, Stability, and Statecraft: Essays on the International History of Modern Europe, ed. David Wetzel, Robert Jervis, and Jack S. Levy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 184, 191.

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