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Book Review: Rumbles of Thunder: Power Shifts and the Danger of Sino-American War

28 Jun 2023
Reviewed by Edward Sing Yue Chan

In the field of international relations, numerous publications have examined the dynamics of US-China relations in recent years. Steve Chan scrutinises various popular explanations for the intensification of US-China relations and contends that they are mistaken.

Scholars such as Graham Allison, John Mearsheimer, and John Ikenberry have discussed the possibility of a power transition between these two great powers within the international system, and most importantly, whether such transition would occur peacefully. Typically, some Western academic literature portrays “the United States as the dominant power in the role of defending the system and China as the rising power in the role of a revisionist seeking to overturn it.” However, in his most recent publication Chan, College Professor of Distinction Emeritus at the University of Colorado, argues against this power-transition interpretation of US-China relations.

While US policy elites and public opinion often claim that China’s increasing assertiveness and revisionist tendencies are the primary factors contributing to the worsening of US-China relations, Chan suggests that Beijing’s position on several sensitive issues has remained relatively consistent over the past five decades. These issues include its position on Taiwan’s de facto independence, allegations of violating human rights, policy towards territorial disputes, and increase of military spending. Instead, Chan argues that it is US policies and behaviours towards China that have undergone shifts over time, characterised by a mix of engagement, balancing, and containment. According to the author, the main reason for the deterioration in US-China relations is not due to the concern advocated by power-transition theorists, but rather because “Americans’ views and attitudes have become more skeptical and even hostile to various tenets constituting the liberal international order.” Consequently, Chan posits that this is not a power-transition issue, but rather a case of power balancing.

To support his claim, Chan presents two compelling arguments. Firstly, he highlights Washington’s structural power advantage in the competition with China. He critically assesses four dimensions of US power dominance: military preponderance, financial supremacy, manufacturing and export capabilities, and knowledge production and ideational control. He concludes that the US will still enjoy a significant advantage in all four dimensions of structural power for the next few decades, thereby suggesting that the perceived China threat is exaggerated. However, when the Americans realise that China has narrowed the gap with the US, they begin to lament what used to be the sources of enduring US advantage, such as globalisation. This results in US disengagement from the international liberal order, especially during the Trump administration. Ironically, “the United States – not China – has acted more like a revisionist state.”

The second argument focuses on the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy. Chan argues that states do not necessarily compete for more power or material interests; instead, their elites may vie for “intangible or psychological rewards such as status, recognition, and respects” in order to increase their internal legitimacy. This dynamic applies to both the domestic discourse in China and the US. On one hand, anti-foreign nationalism has been amplified in China as a powerful force that unifies the population in support of Beijing’s foreign policy. Likewise, Washington has promoted a decoupling policy, suggesting that Chinese companies are harming the US economy. When people on both sides feel that their respective countries are being humiliated or disrespected, they confront each other. Once again, Chan argues that this explanation aligns with power balancing, which is often neglected in power-transition theories due to their focus on structural factors.

Applying his theoretical observations, Chan offers insights into the situation in the Taiwan Strait. He discusses how Taiwan could potentially become a catalyst for conflict between China and the US, based on his arguments. First, he suggests that Washington’s policy on Taiwan is part of its overall balancing strategy vis-à-vis China. Second, he emphasises the importance of domestic reputation and audience costs for Beijing. These two insights shed light on why both states are reluctant to abandon their interests. In line with his overall argument, Chan insists that “war can rarely be explained by a single cause.” Power transition may be just one possible factor contributing to the potential military conflict in Taiwan.

The debate between power transition and power balancing remains a prominent topic in discussions on US-China relations. Chan has done an excellent job of critically evaluating arguments from both sides and articulating his position with the support of theoretical and historical evidence. However, it is worth noting that the book makes limited research contributions to US-China relations, given that this is not a book on great power rivalry per se. The author’s remarks regarding the cross-strait tensions have extensively been covered by other China experts. Rather, Chan’s main contribution lies in his critique of power-transition theorists for their double standards. As he asserts, while elites and media who support and emphasise “the need for a balance of power to maintain peace and stability,” they frequently “shift to liberal institutionalist arguments, invoking the need for rules-based behavior.”

In summary, Rumbles of Thunder delves into one of the most popular topics in international relations. However, as a theoretically driven book that includes critical reviews of the realist worldview, it may be challenging for general readers to follow. As Chan states at the beginning, “readers of this book will find many contrarian views challenging mainstream ideas circulated in popular media and academic discourse.” Therefore, although Chan offers insightful analyses of power shifts and power balancing, the book is perhaps more suited for scholars of international relations.

This is a review of Steve Chan, Rumbles of Thunder: Power shifts and the danger of Sino-American War (Columbia University Press, 2022). ISBN: 9780231208451

Edward Sing Yue Chan is the Postdoctoral Fellow of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University and the Associate Editor of The China Journal.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.