- China's Asia: Triangular Dynamics since the Cold War by Lowell Dittmer
Lowell Dittmer's book comes at a critical time when regional actors are learning to cope with a rising and assertive China. According to Lowell Dittmer's interesting book, China is seeking to revive the old China Dream of exercising dominance over what it considers to be its "natural region". However, the region has been resisting such attempts, and "China finds its way to its prized Asian leadership role frustrated" (p. 2).
Dittmer suggests that the best way to understand the geopolitical dynamics between China and its Asian neighbours is by mapping them onto a triangular model of relationships with the United States as the third actor. This creates what Dittmer calls a "strategic triangle", in which each participant is presumed to be a sovereign and rational actor. Each actor in a strategic triangle takes into account the third actor in managing its relationship with the second. Each actor is also essential to the game in the sense that its defection from one side to the other would affect the strategic balance. For Dittmer, "the rules of the game are to maximize national interests by having as many positive triangles and as few negative triangles as possible" (p. 11).
With the inclusion of the United States in the strategic triangle, China's asymmetrical power advantages over its Asian neighbours are mitigated, much to Beijing's chagrin. This explains why China seeks to depict the United States as "a country outside of the region" and cast its foreign policy in the region as "interference" or "intervention" (p. 17). China also warns its smaller neighbours to "not take sides" between the two major powers (p. 13).
The book examines six strategic triangles: Russia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, ASEAN, India (with the inclusion of two smaller embedded triangles involving Pakistan) and Australia.
For Dittmer, the Russia-China-US triangle poses the worst possible configuration for the United States. In recent years, the Sino-Russian partnership has grown stronger, placing the United States in a disadvantageous position. Dittmer describes how President Barack Obama made a strategic choice of engaging China, even "downplaying short-term disagreements over the South China Sea" (p. 99). However, under President Donald Trump, US bilateral relations with China and Russia have deteriorated, while Beijing and Moscow [End Page 463] have grown closer to each other, putting the United States in the worst triangular position.
Dittmer describes the Japan-China-US triangle as an arranged marriage "consisting of the Japan-America Security Alliance on one side facing an opposing Sino-Russian alliance on the other" (p. 132). Increasingly, however, especially after 2012 when the United States could no longer easily play a pivotal balancing role due to China's more assertive foreign policy, the China-Japan-US triangle has further entrenched the importance of Japan and the Japan-US alliance.
The author assesses that, in their respective strategic triangles with the United States and China, Taiwan and South Korea pursue bifurcated foreign policies in the sense of being oriented both to outside powers and to their "other half", i.e. China and North Korea respectively. Both countries have tried (inconclusively) to bring them into "alignment" (p. 162). Between 1995 and 2005, "Taiwan fell into the worst possible position of a pariah facing a Sino-U.S. marriage" (p. 151). However, given current US-China tensions, Taiwan's prominence has now risen in American foreign policy. Dittmer thus argues that "we may stand at the threshold of a brave, perilous new era in cross-Straits relations" (p. 154). While China has repeatedly given reassurances that it has no intention of pushing America out of the Western Pacific, it considers the US alliance network in the region and the Taiwan Relations Act as antithetical to its core interests. The triangular configurations involving Taiwan and South Korea serve a different purpose compared to other cases. While it may provide some measure of protection to smaller powers, Dittmer argues that "it cannot heal national division" (p...