Book Review: Edward Luttwak, The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy

In his book The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy author Edward Luttwak presents a stark thesis based on what he describes as the logic of strategy. Throughout the book Luttwak tells the reader that China is simply too big to be able to continue to rise economically and militarily without causing regional and global powers to align against China. In this formulation, as China increases military spending, its diplomatic and political powers will wane as other states work to constrain China out of fear for their own independence. This dynamic will continue unless China reaches some unspecified tipping point where it has enough power to impose subjugation on its neighbors, which will cause them to accept China’s dominance. Luttwak articulates his thesis well in the introduction and conclusion, however, the middle section of the book weakens due to misreading of dynamics in individual countries, and by demonstrating that each country acts based on individual idiosyncratic reasons based on things like culture, history, and national self-perceptions rather than an overarching strategic logic.

The value add of The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy is its update on the premise of the Thucydides trap. Normally IR realists use this concept to explain the high probability of a rising power and a status quo power conflicting during the transition phase, harkening back to Thucydides famous line “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” The book acknowledges the logic of the trap, but goes further than most writers by claiming that there is a way out, however unlikely it is that China will take the offered escape route. Unlike structural realists, Luttwak believes things like intentions, regime type, and military spending matter, and that even with a high base of potential power that China could convert into military might it is still possible for China to reduce the fear that its rise is causing in the region. The main prescription is simple: rapid economic growth and rapid military growth will cause conflict, so if China wants to avoid conflict and tragedy it needs to maintain a smaller military force than it is capable of. The author acknowledges the paradoxical need to reduce defense spending to achieve security will be hard for the Chinese leadership or the Chinese people to accept, but argues strongly that it is the only way to continue their economic rise without causing fear.

One particularly interesting concept is that there is a threshold of what other states are willing to accept in terms of Chinese power before they try to constrain it and an upper threshold where China becomes powerful enough that other states are no longer able to challenge China but must submit to a Chinese led order. Early in the book, the author states that China has already passed the first threshold, and that states are starting to balance against China’s rise, in particular by aligning with the United States. This is certainly the case for countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, which are currently strengthening naval cooperation with the United States as China becomes more aggressive on expansive maritime territorial claims. The author makes the case that there are several ways for China to increase this threshold, such as being more transparent about decision making or even democratization, however the logic of strategy will still apply and economic and military growth together will trigger counter-balancing. Importantly, however, after China crosses the threshold of acceptable growth, it does not mean that there will be military conflict, which would be a disaster due to the presence of nuclear weapons, but that the balancing could take on a geo-economic form. This argument is more convincing than the standard realist ones about the possibility of armed conflict, which ignores how reluctant states are to be involved in possible nuclear warfare or even at the possibility of great powers war. It is refreshing to have this reality plainly stated by a strategic speaker, and it makes sense in the context of China’s rise, which has been driven by rapid economic growth.

Mr. Luttwak acknowledges his lack of specialized knowledge about the region that he writes about is this book, and when he goes into individual country cases his writing falters. This is particularly clear in the chapter on South Korea. This chapter describes South Korean refusal to deter North Korean actions through proportionate responses as a peculiar sign of subservience to China, which requests both parties to return to talks and tranquility after each North Korean provocation. The chapter goes as far to say that this lack of strategic reaction on the ROK’s part damages U.S. interests because the U.S would be responsible for defending the ROK in the case of an invasion or major attack. This misguided analysis ignores that the U.S. has wartime operational control of the ROK forces, and any retaliatory action would need to be jointly approved and enacted. Also, more importantly it ignores the long historical role that the United States has played in restraining the ROK military force- for which it has had complete operational control for most of the ROK’s history. Indeed, if there is any peculiar actor in the U.S.-ROK alliance it is the United States. In Victor Cha’s book Alignment Despite Antagonism Cha notes how frequently concerned ROK presidents have been by the lack of U.S. reaction to DPRK provocations including seizing the USS Pueblo from international waters and holding and mistreating U.S. sailors resulting in a U.S. apology rather than anything that could be described as deterrence.[1] The South Korea chapter is not an integral part of the thesis, but I have treated it in detail because the level of basic misunderstandings suggests the possibility that in having a non-specialist cover a range of countries might leave the reader with misunderstandings caused by the author’s confidence in their superficial portrayals.

Aside from misunderstandings about the countries Luttwak profiles, after reading the eight chapters detailing the reactions to China’s rise of countries as varied as Japan and Norway it becomes clear that each country responds based on its own history, culture, and perception of interest. In the strategy of logic, as opposed to realism, countries are not treated as black boxes with no history or cultural preference. For example, the author compares Korea’s perceived cultural “servility” to China with Vietnam’s culture of opposing China as a mechanism to explain why both countries will likely react in different ways to China’s rise. However, Luttwak does mention how since both Vietnam and China are ruled by communist parties, there will be instances of cooperation, as when China successfully convinced Vietnam to boycott the Nobel Prize ceremony for the “criminal” Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. There is a interesting argument to be made about how culture, history, geography and other things affect different countries perceptions of the rise of China, but at no point is it made explicit how they affect the basic thesis about the logic of strategy at the core of the book. It is undoubtable that myriad things like South East Asian resentment at native Chinese wealth in their countries to Norwegian concern about market access for their fish not all affect views on China, but it is clear how these disparate things fit into a theoretical framework, or why a strategic, not regional, specialist chose to highlight them.

Despite the books flaws, The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy is more compelling than the standard Thucydide’s trap formulation made popular by realist thinkers. When the author focuses narrowly on the logic of strategy and on the relationship between the United States and China the book is sharp and its predictions unsettling. Unlike many strategic writers, Luttwak moves beyond military strategy and focuses on geo-economic maneuvering as a way for the two nuclear powers to balance and counterbalance one another. In this vein, in the name of strategic logic the U.S. and China are admonished to give up seemingly common sense goals. For the United States, instead of adhering to free market ideology and trade with China they are advised to stop economically fueling China’s rise and to use economic containment. For China, they are warned not to increase their military power concurrently with their economic power in order to not antagonize other powers, going against the realist truism that countries are power maximizers and will seek to increase hegemony to gain more security. These are novel ideas that deserve to be considered on their merit, however in a globalized world where U.S. allies in Asia are increasingly delinking their economic and security interests and where Chinese nationalism has become a way for the CCP to maintain legitimacy, neither would be easy to accomplish and would entail great risk to any politician wanting to put them into place.

[1] Cha, V. (1999). Alignment despite antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan security triangle. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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