A CONTEST FOR SUPREMACY – China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia

By Aaron L. Friedberg
360 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95.

Published: September 23, 2011

It seems inevitable that Chinese-­American relations will increasingly come to preoccupy the world. The United States continues to be the only global superpower, but in the not-too-distant future China promises to acquire the status of an equal or near equal. How this relationship evolves during a period when the balance of power between them is shifting so rapidly is inevitably a cause for concern.

To be sure, there is at least one important source of encouragement. Ever since the Nixon-Mao rapprochement in the 1970s, the relationship between the two countries has been remarkably stable, notwithstanding the many changes of leadership and the numerous twists and turns of history. The future, though, promises to be different.

In “A Contest for Supremacy,” Aaron L. Friedberg outlines several reasons a closer relationship between the two powers is possible: economic interdependence, the prospect that China may become more open and democratic, its continuing integration into the international system, common threats like climate change and nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, he believes two other factors — a growing clash of interests and deep ideological and political differences — will prove more decisive and will make the relationship more tense and competitive.

For Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, the stakes could hardly be greater. He quotes Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore: “If you do not hold your ground in the Pacific, you cannot be a world leader.” Signaling his agreement, Friedberg writes: “If we permit an illiberal China to displace us as the preponderant player in this most vital region, we will face grave dangers to our interests and our values throughout the world.” Asia, as he correctly observes, is the key crucible of future conflict, with East Asia in particular set to assume central importance. This, after all, is China’s backyard. It is already the most important economic region in the world.

Friedberg is certainly right that a situation characterized by the emergence of a rising power and the decline of an existing hegemon has generally been a recipe for instability and conflict. But the fact that the United States is a liberal democracy and China a one-party system is not as important as another factor Friedberg barely mentions: the very different histories and cultures of the two countries about which, in contrast, Henry Kissingeris eloquent in his recent book, On China. Friedberg’s discussion is conducted largely, though not exclusively, in security terms, but by far the most important factor in determining the future will be economics. It is China’s extraordinary economic performance that has been driving and will continue to drive the change in the relationship.

Friedberg’s failure to give sufficient weight to that performance means that he underestimates the forces that, with enormous speed, are reshaping East Asia in China’s favor and to America’s disadvantage. Within a remarkably short space of time, China has become the largest market for most countries in East Asia, Japan included, and the destination for almost one-quarter of Asia’s total exports, excluding India. The relative importance of the American market, on the other hand, is declining rapidly. China is fast becoming a major source of capital for many countries, while Beijing’s decision to begin internationalizing the renminbi means that within the next five years it could rival the dollar in the settlement of East Asian trade.

As Friedberg points out, countries in the region are, in varying degrees, wary of China’s rise. But the predominant trend over the last decade has been for them to move closer to Beijing. This, of course, was the pattern over the many centuries of the tributary system, a situation now being resumed as China once more assumes its position as the major economic power in the region. China’s neighbors will be increasingly disinclined to antagonize it, because they are fully aware that their economic futures are bound up far more with Beijing than with Washington.

Friedberg similarly gives insufficient weight to America’s economic decline. True, he recognizes that the Western financial crisis has hurt America badly, while China has been relatively little touched. But the effect of the crisis has been even more profound than is generally understood: it has ushered in a new era defined by American decline and the beginnings of a Chinese economic world order. So it is essential that America set itself realistic targets with regard to China and not seek to deal with the world as it was, but rather how it will be.

This brings me to Friedberg’s conclusion. For the most part, the tenor of the book is considered, balanced, informative and restrained, even somewhat tentative in tone. In the final chapter, however, he adopts a far more strident voice. He takes issue with what he describes as the “Shanghai Coalition,” those in the United States who advocate engagement with China rather than containment, accusing them of self-interest or worse, and he mounts a fierce case for developing new military systems for projecting American power, including “long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, submerged or low-observable ‘arsenal ships’ loaded with precision weapons, long-range conventional ballistic missiles and perhaps a new intercontinental-range stealthy manned bomber.” Combined with a more assertive approach to China, he calls for a new security framework in Asia that includes the United States — now largely excluded from regional organizations — and what he describes as a “community of Asian democracies” designed specifically to neutralize Chinese ambitions.

Essentially, Friedberg seeks to counter China’s rise in its own region by the deployment of hard power. This will inevitably lead to a more tense and dangerous international environment, quite possibly a new cold war. It is also highly doubtful whether it can be successful.

America’s problem, ultimately, is not military but economic, a point also made by Kissinger. If the Chinese economy, as projected by Goldman Sachs, overtakes the American economy by 2027, and is almost double the size by 2050, then hawkish responses to China’s power are misplaced. Instead, two very different emphases are required. First, America must concentrate on economic regeneration, including huge expenditure on modernizing its infrastructure and education system. Second, it must come to terms with the fact that China’s rise and America’s decline are not simply a result of a failure of policy but are rather one of those great — and highly infrequent — historical shifts that governments can do relatively little to affect, let alone prevent.