Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder

Trapped Giant: China’s Troubled Military Rise

This book, published in the reputable Adelphi Series of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, presents a lucid analysis of how China perceives its security environment, what its perceptions are of America’s long-standing military presence in Asia, how it has sought to take on the superpower’s preponderance, and in which way this affects regional stability. It argues that while none of the Asian protagonists is in for another arms race or military confrontation, even their very defensive posturing and moderate military modernization is causing distrust and fear.

Tensions are rapidly building up between China and the US. As much as the latter is trying to keep its security perimeter as close to the Asian continent as possible, China is trying to break through this belt of American bases that stretches from South Korea to Australia. While Beijing has not been very concerned about the military aspirations of its neighbours, other regional powers like Japan and India, respond to the Pacific Dilemma between China and the US by boosting their own military prowess.

China increasingly looks like a trapped giant, with most neighbouring countries becoming more determined to keep its rise in check. While this could create a new strategic equilibrium, China is not slowing down its military modernization. Furthermore, in a context of domestically fragile powers and looming nationalism, one cannot take for granted that Asian leaders will always be cool-headed when tensions and skirmishes occur. Balancing in an increasingly multipolar regional order remains a very risky game.

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Wang Jisi, Peking University: “This book provides a sobering and lucid analysis of how China’s growing military capabilities are affecting Asian regional stability. Its Chinese readers may not feel very comfortable with the findings herein, but should take them seriously when they hope China’s pronounced peaceful intentions can dispel mistrust in its neighbours.”

David Pilling, Financial Times: “Jonathan Holslag has produced a thoroughly researched and clearly written account of one of the most important themes of our times, the capacity of the international system to cope peacefully with a rising China. He carefully charts how China’s response to perceived containment by the US and to weaknesses emanating from its own “go-global” economic system is making Asian neighbours increasingly nervous. This is a cool-headed, intelligent and important investigation of a topic too often clouded by passion and ideology.”

Rosemary Foot, University of Oxford: “This is a timely analysis of the consequences of China’s military modernisation not only for its relations with the United States, but also with its Asian neighbours. Appropriately, it gives significant attention to changes in Asian strategic doctrine at a time of uncertainty.”