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Book Review: The Road to Balance in Asia Pacific

NUST scholar Dr. Atia Ali Kazmi in her insightful book, The Road to Balance in the Asia Pacific: Geopolitics of American Rebalancing and Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, explains the unique coupling in the political, economic, and security-military spheres that can make or break the global order.

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One of the defining factors of twenty-first-century world politics is the yin-yang philosophy of China-US relations. This unique coupling in the political, economic, and security-military spheres can make or break the global order, explains the NUST scholar Dr. Atia Ali Kazmi in her insightful book, The Road to Balance in the Asia Pacific: Geopolitics of American Rebalancing and Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

Through the medium of objective historical parallels and contemporary developments, her well-detailed and deeply contextualized work shows how the United States and China are proceeding in the region while keeping a keen eye on their self-interest.

Stressing that conflict or competition is not a rational choice, the book methodically brings forth the evolving dynamics of Sino-American relations in the backdrop of their new century ambitions in the Asia Pacific. Stability in the Asia Pacific affects the stability of international politics. Their intentions and conduct of this complex interaction thus hold far-reaching implications.

The constructive manner adopted in this book for describing concerns surrounding China’s rise and resulting anxieties is creditable. The imperatives of these concerns for regional stability have also been called into question.

Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has proved a watershed moment for China’s regional outreach and development of its members. At the same time, the initiative has deeply impacted China-US relations and will continue doing so.

If lessons are to be drawn from the trajectory of their relations, the current flow of events may lead to war or might even trigger an inclusive peace – none will be a historical first. Although several episodes around the corners of history have been ringing alarms, nothing appears inevitable for the future so far.

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Given that all players are destined to remain focused on self-interest, the readers of this book shall find logical and evidence-based answers to some leading questions about the emerging world order vis-à-vis the Asia Pacific: will the duo be able to balance the adversarial power equation?

Are the contemporary postures marking competition, cooperation, or a competitive-cooperative arrangement? What are vital regional states doing in the face of expanded Sino-American ventures? And finally, can the two powers avoid hot or cold war politics?

It looks as if the symbiotic nature of China-US relations and interactions would never allow them to set off on a distant journey. The famous China-US rapprochement in the 1970s, marked by President Nixon’s visit to Beijing employing Pakistan’s mediation, initiated the decisive phase of normalized relations. Set in the phenomenon of globalization, this relationship is complex, inter-reliant, and multidimensional today.

Reasonably, a state’s interface with another barely occurs in isolation from the previous policy choices and practices and its future plans. An influential American presence in Asia necessitates navigation of its relations with China that has been considered a “constructive strategic partner” by President Clinton, a “strategic competitor,” by President Bush and a “national security threat” by President Trump.

The scholarly endeavor thus notes intriguingly how the present-time fashions of their rendezvous in the Asia Pacific find linkages with interactions more than a century ago.

It is essentially a three-dimensional analysis of one, China-U.S. bilateral relations; two, their approaches to critical regional states; and three, the impact of this interaction on the geopolitics of the Asia Pacific region. Their policies of engagement with regional states – rebalancing and Belt and Road Initiative – started almost in parallel and have only strengthened their foothold on the region and the impact on the regional balance of power.

The study focuses on policies and events primarily from 2011 to 2018. Although President Obama’s rebalancing had a different hue in President Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy, the former’s two terms and the steps he initiated for greater engagement in the Asia Pacific cannot be undermined or ignored in any case.

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Moreover, the Trump administration’s critical decisions were even viewed as rebalancing rebranded. His Indo-Pacific strategy just enlarged the scope from the Asia Pacific to the Indian Ocean region while retaining the essence of Obama’s so-called rebalancing. The American geopolitical radar now covers almost the entire route of BRI’s Maritime Silk Road.

President Joe Biden’s foreign policy outlook – whether he will carry forward Obama’s legacy or choose salient elements from Trump – is worth waiting for, though the recent AUKUS has already set the strategic direction.

Policy preferences of great and major powers – named so based on their national power potentials, particularly military build-up, economic might, and the ability to wage war – are sure to influence regional matters, decisions, and their fallout.

The core interests of China and the US, whether at a tangent or otherwise, will set the course of regional politics and development, leaving regional states to either remain skeptical about policies of both, optimize their gains by playing balancing acts, or prefer allegiance and bind relations with a chosen one through strategic partnerships and alliances.

Interdependent choices of states in this regard can safeguard shared win-wins. Zero-sum games of building power at others’ cost do not suit any of the players in the Asia Pacific.

Simply put, there is lesser room for aggressive foreign policies on both sides, lest to sleepwalk towards a collective catastrophe.

The geopolitical legacy and imperatives of the day will shape future relations. Stability in relations is often lost to the broader chessboard of strategic and economic imperatives. The advent of Covid-19 has exacerbated competition, and the probability of a conflict is not being overruled even by leading experts of world politics. A balanced equation of their bilateral relations is thus significant for a peaceful and developed international order.

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The author simply dubs it a game of choices – by selecting the path of cooperation rather than confrontation, they choose a collective redemption. It has been predicted that, in general, they will be bound to maintain some degree of cooperation.

However, in case of collision of core national interests, conflict could happen and deepen. The risks of a cold war or a hot conflict between Washington and Beijing have never been ruled out.

The range of this original, balanced and engaging narrative by a Pakistani scholar is extraordinary. It draws attention to an issue being debated everywhere around the globe. No research of this scale has yet appraised the two strategies of rebalancing and BRI to analyze their implication for China-US relations and the Asia Pacific region. Additionally, a perspective from Pakistan holds a significant value as relations with China and the US are the key foreign policy focus of Pakistan and vice versa.

Many elements of this book, such as detailed accounts of the Belt and Road Initiative and American engagements in the Asia Pacific and regional states’ behavior, deserve careful consideration. The comprehensive work is in its first edition and is essential reading for inquiry, content, and impact.

For the scholars and practitioners of international politics, foreign and defense policies, and strategic and development studies, this book provides a fresh and different outlook on crucial geopolitical facets of the Asia Pacific.

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