Triangulation and Strangulation: The Story of China’s Asia

Shinzō Abe and Xi Jinping November 2017

“China’s Asia: Triangular Dynamics since the Cold War” makes for a riveting title of an equally interesting book by Lowell Dittmer, published in early 2018. Lowell Dittmer is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. His key areas of expertise include Chinese and Asian comparative politics, Sino-Soviet normalization, and Chinese regional foreign policy. His book presents a well-informed and balanced account of Chinese foreign policy in Asia, with a special focus on the post-Cold War and contemporary period. The central thesis of the book posits that Chinese relations with other Asian states may be “best understood as a triangular relationship” with the United States as the third actor.[1] The book’s claims and subsequent arguments are presented clearly and comprehensively. Dittmer breaks each argument down into simpler fractions to inform the reader, making it an easy read. The chronology of the book also adds to its clarity. Each chapter discusses China’s triangular relations with a specific country or a group of countries in detail. Based on Dittmer’s arguments, it can be inferred that the triangular strategy may strangulate one of the countries — mostly, the ‘weakest’ one. This review offers a critique of Dittmer’s book vis-à-vis its triangulation methodology. Following this, it will analyze certain country-specific arguments in the book. Lastly, by thinking inside and outside the book, it gauges the book’s overall impact and explores certain tangential ideas that have subtle mentions in the book.

Making Triangles to Make Sense

The triangular framework used in the book to make sense of complex Chinese policies in Asia is brilliant. It makes good use of realist theories to explain Asian politics. The concepts of “balancing,” “band-wagoning,” and “hedging” are central to Sino-Asian politics. “China’s Asia” puts forth a mechanism by which one can understand how the smaller Asian states accommodate themselves in the US-China power tussle. Although these realist policies have their pros and cons, they can be molded into a triangular framework. The book proposes four possible orientations of the triangular relationship: unit veto, stable marriage, romantic, and ménage à trois based on the nature of relation state has with the other two. These can be visualized using the picture below, where each vertex represents a state, the dotted line represents enmity, and the solid represents amity between the two vertices.

SingalImage

One of the presumptions of this strategic framework is that all actors are rational. Borrowed from structural realism, such an assumption has faced significant criticism and scrutiny.[2] Rationality is quite subjective when it comes to state behavior. States do not act “rationally” every time. Their rational or irrational actions have a huge bearing on the entire triangular balance. This uncertainty in state actions is frequently described as one of the drawbacks of realism. However, the ambiguity allows smaller states to hedge, enter triangular relations, and shift their orientations, making the triangular orientations relatively flexible. The book illustrates this very explicitly. Inferences drawn from this simplistic model can then be substantiated with more context to gain deeper insights into a state’s one-to-one relation with China or the US.

China Moves in Asia

The triangulation strategy portrays Chinese foreign policy in an interesting manner. It changes according to the state and time period in question. Triangular structures are beneficial for some states while toxic for the others. Generally, the worst affected one is the smaller state caught in the ‘no-man’s land’ in-between the ‘hegemon’ and the ‘challenger’. The state is faced with making a tough choice — one that it cannot afford to make — leading to its strangulation.

The case of Australia, as presented by the author, resonates with this idea. It is stuck between the two because it is highly dependent on China economically and on the US strategically. Choosing either will be bad for Australia. Additionally, because it doesn’t have anything to “offer” to either state, it cannot play the role of the pivot player in a ‘romantic triangle’ and will have to eventually choose. Therefore, Australia’s best bet is to hedge. ASEAN’s case is also similar. Although triangular relations need not be strangulating always, owing to the nature of the US-China power scrimmage, the third country is likely to be suffocated.

Nevertheless, the big picture is that China’s relations in Asia are triangular. However, there is one caveat. As Dittmer mentions, “Triangular logic applies to Korea as well, but only with poetic license.”[3] The Korean case provides a slight tangent to the idea of a triangular strategy. It is more of a tension between two triangles with China, DPRK, and Russia on one side and the US, ROK, and Japan on the other. Moreover, Korea has two discrete points of conflict — nuclear weapons and reunification. Hence, talking plainly in terms of just one triangle with the US, China, and Korea would be an oversimplification.

Thinking Inside and Outside

An internal critique of the book finds ample evidence supporting its central thesis. Moreover, apart from its numerous strengths elaborated above; two more subtle features enhance its overall experience — the first being the method by which Dittmer substantiates his claims. He starts by elaborating on the bilateral relations between the particular state and China. The presence of sufficient historical context gives his approach a slight constructivist bend. This building of national identities and bilateral ties from a constructivist lens helps understand the multilateral policy of states and, eventually, its triangular nexus. The second subtle feature is the name given to each chapter and its significance. It sets the tone and summarizes the content in a phrase. It gives the reader a direction to think and aids in comprehension of the argument. Dittmer is also very specific about the time period which he comments on: the era from the Cold War to approximately 2016. Outside that time period, he leaves policy interpretations quite open-ended.

The book adds a unique perspective to the vast extant literature on China’s rise and its Asian policy. A critique offered from an external point of view highlights the situation contingency and time specificity of the book. Since the book was published in February 2018, much has changed vis-à-vis the geopolitical landscape of Asia. The coronavirus pandemic, 2020 US elections, and China’s increasingly forthcoming and aggressive foreign policy[4] have reshaped the Asian geopolitics, rendering some arguments and claims somewhat irrelevant. This is not to discard the importance of any arguments or predictions in the book. In such an unpredictable and ever-changing geopolitical landscape making fully accurate policy predictions is quite difficult and outside the interest of the book. The book fulfills what it set out to do, i.e., understand the “thrust of China’s Asia policy” and its implications for China’s neighbors.[5] In discussing the triangulation strategy, the book borrows significantly from realist theory. There is little mention of the ‘three dimensions of power’ and ‘levels of analyses’, just as in the realist ideas.[6] Although Dittmer builds on the power hierarchy amongst the states involved, he doesn’t explicitly use the three dimensions of power, i.e., power as an influence on actions (first dimension), omission and inclusion of certain topics from discussion (second dimension), and structural thinking (third dimension). Furthermore, the triangular analysis is done at the sub-systemic (or state) level. Even though the book mentions significant policy changes that were brought in with the election of Trump in the US, it did not adequately emphasize the importance of individual leaders and their policy mindset. Policy interpretations change considerably with changes in the kind of leadership that runs the state — affecting the national interests and eventually the triangular dynamic. Exploring this further in the book would have been a cherry on the top.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Dittmer cleanly and simply explains the nuances of China’s Asia policy. He provides a fair analysis of both sides of the US-China “cool war” that Asia is caught in, illustrating how this might strangulate states at times. His book’s beautiful structure paints a clear picture in the reader’s mind regarding the contemporary policy stances of key players in this race between the megalomaniacs. Through a very unique lens, it articulates the policy mindsets of leaders in the region and adds value to all the existing literature on the subject. This comprehensive account of Dittmer’s pioneer research and analysis also opens channels to think critically about topics beyond the book’s central thesis. It is a must-read for anyone interested in Asian geopolitics and the rise of China. Through his book, Dittmer clearly demonstrates that while foreign policy decisions might appear going in circles, in reality, it’s all about triangles.


References:

[1] Lowell Dittmer, China’s Asia: Triangular Dynamics Since the Cold War (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018), p. 13.

[2] Alen Shadunts, “The Rational Actor Assumption in Structural Realism,” E, October 28, 2016, https://www.e-ir.info/2016/10/28/the-rational-actor-assumption-in-structural-realism/.

[3] Dittmer, p. 164.

[4] Julian Gewirtz Lindsey W. Ford, “China’s Post-Coronavirus Aggression Is Reshaping Asia,” Foreign Policy, June 18, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/18/china-india-aggression-asia-alliances/.

[5] Dittmer, p. 274.

[6] Steven Lukes, “Introduction,” in Power: a Radical View (London: The Macmillan Press, 1980), pp. 14-29; J. David Singer, “The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations,” World Politics 14, no. 1 (1961): pp. 77-92, https://doi.org/10.2307/2009557.

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