Book review: Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, by James Steinberg and Michael O'Hanlon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 3:42pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 3:42pm

Strategic Reassurance and Resolve
by James Steinberg and Michael O'Hanlon
Princeton University Press
4 stars

Mark O'Neill

"The sheer magnitude of the rise of China, in the face of America's continued power and global network of alliances, is unprecedented in the history of nations. But so too could the accomplishment of these giants of the 21st century in showing that an established superpower and a rising superpower need not allow their relationship to produce hegemonic rivalry of major war."

That is the concluding paragraph of Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the 21st Century by two Washington insiders.

James Steinberg is a former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, while Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specialises in national security policy.

They argue that in the 40-plus years since president Richard Nixon's visit to China in February 1972, bilateral relations have been largely co-operative, with deep economic inter-dependence between the two.

But these relations have reached a crossroads, with Beijing now able to challenge Washington's leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.

The authors contend that there are powerful domestic and international factors, especially in the military and security realms, that could well push the relationship towards an arms race and confrontation. But they also say this worst-case scenario can be avoided if the two countries adopt deliberate policies to avert it.

The chapters carefully set out the parameters of a possible conflict - the determinants of Chinese and of American strategy: military spending and modernisation; the nuclear, space and cyber dimensions; and bases, deployments and operations.

The chapter on nuclear, space and the cyber world is illuminating. "Like space, the cyber domain has become an increasing source of strategic mistrust and competition … Both countries have identified cyber security as a critical national challenge." The Chinese Ministry of Public Security says that the mainland is the world's largest victim of cyber attacks.

For its part, the US has power grids, chemical plants and other critical infrastructure connected to the internet that is vulnerable. Estimates of possible damage to these systems from all-out cyber attacks exceed US$1 trillion. "US officials increasingly worry about the possibility of a 'cyber Pearl Harbour'" - and China is one of the few states that could mount such an attack.

This book is for those who want a thorough explanation of the security, defence and strategic issues facing China and the US.