A Tango of Eagle and Dragon

“Tangled Titans: The United States and China” edited by David Shambaugh

Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, 436 pp.

I recently finished my MA thesis on President Obama’s Rebalance to Asia and how it will effect the regional order in the Asia-Pacific. An important aspect of hereof is the US-China relationship and I came across Tangled Titans during this research proces.

51leb0iujfl-_sx331_bo1204203200_The book consists of sixteen chapters written by different authors who all engage various facets of the topic. For my study i skipped the two chapters on domestic factors in foreign policy as well as the chapter on US-China relations outside the Asia-Pacific since my main concern was with structural developments in that region. I can definitely recommend only reading the chapters relating to your specific need or interest since reading the entire thing cover to cover involves a fair share of repetition.


Shambaugh’s opening chapter introduces the term “coopetition” which denotes the combination of cooperative and competitive elements in US-China relations today. It is this dual dynamic which runs as a thread throughout the book as it tries to balance different interpretations of the relationship. The insistence on a balanced approach is evident from the theoretical part of Tangled Titans which includes a liberal and a realist chapter (by G. John Ikenberry and Ashley J. Tellis, respectively). As a whole, the book succeeds in providing nuanced accounts of the relationship, although it does at time reduce the conclusions to somewhat banal statements when the fear of overemphasizing one of the two extremes makes for uninteresting compromises.

What’s actually going on?

To me, the most interesting part of the book is the one on the bilateral context of the relationship which is divided into four chapters covering diplomacy, economy, culture and military security. These chapters offer a lot of new empirical insights which was highly relevant to my own work.

Bonnie S. Glaser provides an overview of the numerous diplomatic mechanisms the two nations have in place as well as the most frequent points of disagreement. Afterwards, Charles W. Freeman III presents the economic relationship and how it is influenced by domestic factors such as the popular feeling of being cheated in the international trade balance which is present among both Chinese and US citizens. Freeman then analyzes important economic elements such as currency manipulation and intellectual property  right infringements to demonstrate how these continue to upset economic negotiations.

The chapter on the cultural relationship by Terry Lautz excels by diving into areas which are rarely covered in international relations studies. As Lautz opens his chapter, “culture has the potential to reduce tensions and enhance trust between nations and peoples. It can also be used to win hearts and minds for national and political purposes” (p. 211). For this reason, Lautz explores how both countries are actively trying to promote their own culture to build stable relations and gain soft power. Central elements in the chapter are education and language studies, university exchanges and the freedom of activity for NGOs. The most interesting conclusion is that China “relies heavily on government, while the United States has a huge range of private organizations to convey its cultural values and norms. Chinese culture therefore has the appearance of being packed and managed, and by contrast American culture seems open and fluid” (p. 229). This demonstrates well how the use of culture as a political instrument is shaped by the type of government wielding it.


Christopher P. Twomey’s chapter investigates the military-security relationship at three levels: China’s immediate periphery, the intermediate periphery and the global arena. The first is marked by China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) strategy which is already challenging America’s ability to project power into China’s near abroad. This level also discusses the potential risks related to the status of Taiwan and North Korea. The intermediate periphery is a less dangerous place for the US as it is beyond the reach of most of the Chinese A2AD capabilities. Even so, the South China Sea is still an important strategic region and has proven more so over the years since the release of Tangled Titans in 2013. Finally, at the global level, the atmosphere is rather peaceful between the two and it is mostly cyber attacks that pose a mutual irritation. A final interesting element in Twomey’s chapter is his assessment of the institutional restraints on military competition. Here, the author looks into the numerous security dialogue mechanisms, both bi- and multilateral, and how these effect the relationship. This final part was the most relevant to my studies and honestly spared me from doing a research myself.


As a central both player and piece to the international puzzle, Taiwan is present in most, if not all, of the chapters in Tangled Titans. Nonetheless, Shelley Rigger presents a chapter dedicated solely to the issue wherein she presents US-China-Taiwan relations since the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. The chapter gives a good insight into the historical developments and finishes off with a review of a number of positions on the issues in the American debate today. Finally, Rigger makes an interesting point in calling Taiwan the canary bird of China’s rise, since the way China “treats Taiwan is an indicator of how it will behave toward other neighbors” (p. 309).

Broader strategic analysis versus specific empirical study

Several of the chapters in Tangled Titans try to paint broad pictures of the developments in the relationship. However, the broader the subjects get, the less interesting the chapters become. For example, the final part of the book presents two chapters on visions for the future by Wu Xinbo and Harry Harding. Although the two do a decent job of presenting two differing visions (Xinbo considers China a good deal more peaceful and status-quo oriented that Harding does), the chapters both end up just summarizing the findings of the previous parts of the book and only add a few vague predictions on the future (“more coopetition”). In this way, the two chapters become very similar to the theoretical chapters mentioned earlier.

This is really the main strength and weakness of the book. Its detailed studies of specific aspects of the China-US relationship are excellent and provide the reader with much new food for thought. The chapters on broader strategic developments are also great when viewed in isolation but there are simply too many of them which results in repetition and redundancy. Ideally, the book should have been 25-40 % shorter with a few of the more general chapters cut out and the others trimmed of repetitive remarks.

My critique may sound more harsh than it is actually meant. It all goes back to my initial statement: Identify the chapters that suit your needs and interests and read them rather than the entire thing. On their own, the contributions of the sixteen authors are insightful and well-written – especially the more empirical chapters. Furthermore, all chapters come with extensive references making the book a good point of departure for future studies.

Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen

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