These two books explore the most striking features of contemporary international conflict. Thanks to Kilcullen’s serious military experience, access to policymakers, thorough research, and eclectic academic interests, this Australian scholar has become one of the sharpest commentators on modern conflicts. He has shown how Western countries have struggled to cope with new, more agile enemies. In his latest book, Kilcullen draws on James Woolsey’s 1993 confirmation hearings to be director of the CIA, in which he divided U.S. opponents into dragons (major powers such as China and Russia) and snakes (terrorists and insurgents). Kilcullen credits the Russians with developing what he calls “liminal warfare,” making use of unconventional aggressive tactics, such as disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks, without triggering a military response. But the most important innovations come from China, including forming new artificial islands in the South China Sea, with its long-term strategy geared to ambitious, revisionist objectives.
China’s growing strength is most apparent in the maritime sphere. Gresh provides a detailed account of the growing importance of the Chinese, Indian, and Russian navies and how this competition is playing out in waters stretching from the Indo-Pacific area to the Arctic and the Mediterranean. Gresh largely neglects Western navies, but his analysis of the Chinese, Indian, and Russian navies is thorough and exceptional. Russia seeks to exploit the natural resources of the warming Arctic, and India is boosting its naval capabilities to protect its vital maritime trade. Meanwhile, the sheer scale of Chinese efforts both impresses and alarms. Through its various overseas commercial and investment initiatives, Beijing is acquiring access and assets around the world, including a naval base in Djibouti. But with expansion comes great risks: China spars with neighbors over contested waters, encourages potential adversaries to work together to limit its influence, and generates resentment among supposed benefactors it pushes into debt.