Is U.S. strength provocative to China, or U.S. weakness?

Pete Souza/White House

Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, respectively of the United States and China, at an official arrival ceremony in front of the White House on Jan. 19, 2011.

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  • Neither Americans nor the Chinese themselves know what China's future direction will be, domestically or internationally

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The very title of Aaron Friedberg's book will stir controversy among those who believe devoutly in China's "peaceful rise" as a global "responsible stakeholder." These acolytes may be surprised to learn that the title stems from Lee Kuan Yew's (李光耀) perception that "the 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific…." So much for belittling the text without having to read it!

Friedberg has in fact written a judicious, measured assessment of the stakes between China and the United States over the next several decades. Careful analysis and objectivity, however, do not mean Friedberg is indifferent to the outcome, or to the blithe China outlook of many Americans. He accurately characterizes the "willful, blinkered optimism" about the direction of Sino-American relations "in the academic and business communities and across significant portions of the U.S. government." He posits that "if current trends continue, we are on track to lose our geopolitical contest with China. Defeat is more likely to come with a whimper than a bang."

In delineating China's long-term objectives and policies, Friedberg first examines American strategy since the PRC's founding, describing three broad phases: containment (1949 until Nixon's inauguration); alignment (1969 through the Tiananmen Square massacre); and the awkwardly named "congagement," a shifting combination of containment and engagement (Tiananmen until today). Projecting forward, Friedberg deconstructs contemporary speeches and writings of China's top leaders, senior military and civilian officials, academics and think-tankers. In addition to sifting through the rhetoric, however, Friedberg systematically details Beijing's efforts to tilt Asia's politico-military balance of power in its direction. These measures include not only China's overall rapidly expanding military capabilities, but specifically the asymmetric capabilities directly threatening U.S. predominance in the Western Pacific. From cyber-warfare and anti-satellite missiles to a broad array of "anti-access, area denial" weaponry, China is comprehensively enhancing its military power, which the United States has barely begun to acknowledge let alone counter.

Neither Americans nor, more importantly, the Chinese themselves know what China's future direction will be, domestically or internationally. The "peaceful rise" of a "responsible stakeholder" is certainly a possible, but far from inevitable, way ahead. Perhaps China can remain stable, despite an aging population, a shrinking workforce base and tens of millions of eligible bachelors with no prospect of marriage because of the one-child-per-family-policy, and increasing income disparities overlaid with historical geographic divisions. In addition, China must also overcome its overwhelming dependence on foreign sources for energy and other key natural resources to sustain its manufacturing capabilities, and its chaotic domestic financial situation, described in "Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China's Extraordinary Rise" by Carl Walter and Fraser Howe. (Editor's note: it was reviewed here. A link is included below.)

Because of these enormous obstacles, an essentially opposite outcome is also possible: China's Communist Party, still dominated by the Peoples' Liberation Army ("PLA"), will continue to restrict political and religious freedom and reassert control not only over the economy's "commanding heights," but also over sectors now relatively free. An authoritarian power structure could accelerate the existing military buildup, both nuclear and conventional, combining a rapidly growing force-projection capability with increasingly belligerent political and territorial claims in the nearby seas -- particularly against Taiwan -- and greater assertiveness across land borders against weaker neighbors (eschewing confrontation with Russia and India for now). This "rising China" would not be Maoist in the old revolutionary sense, but a "machtpolitik" troublemaker.

An infinite number of scenarios exist between these corner alternatives, and it undoubtedly behooves America to press China in the "peaceful rise" direction. But here is the dilemma: is U.S. strength provocative to China, or U.S. weakness? Friedberg makes clear that weakness is provocative, and that what separates Beijing and Washington is not lack of communication or cooperation, but "the underlying divergence of interests" that inevitably shapes world political competition. Acknowledging that "the balance that exists at present between the forces favoring competition and those tending toward cooperation is fragile," he contends that a fundamental change in U.S.-China relations must abide "a change in China's domestic regime." And he candidly admits that such a transformation is far from certain.

Friedberg's calm, reasoned presentation of the evidence is not likely to spare him from the wrath of those determined to smooth China's ascent to hegemony. Too many American academics, business executives and diplomats believe that U.S. assertiveness on behalf of its interests invariably provokes in China exactly the belligerent conduct we wish to avoid. How much easier and less stressful it is to give China what it wants, without controversy. Of course, such wishful thinking is nothing new, notwithstanding history's innumerable lessons to the contrary. Beijing, in Friedberg's view, has followed an eminently successful strategy to lull Americans into complacency, which, if unrealized and unanswered by Washington, will allow China "to develop its strength to the point where balancing appears hopeless and accommodation to its wishes seems the only sensible option."

For example, Professor Andrew Nathan (黎安友) recently reviewed both Friedberg's book and Henry Kissinger's "On China" in Foreign Affairs (Editor's note: a link is included below.), where he writes that the two studies embody a "strategic split over China among mainstream Republicans." Nathan asserts that Friedberg "exaggerates Chinese power" in pursuit of his argument. But Friedberg makes it clear throughout that his primary concern is not China's hard-power capabilities TODAY, which he takes care not to overstate, nor the inevitability of a hostile China, nor an ultimate trajectory toward military conflict between the reigning Pacific power and the emerging one. Instead, it is the arc of China's developing capabilities in coming years that the United States and Asia's regional powers must counter, and they must start now to be ready for China in the future.

Nathan also errs in characterizing Friedberg's basic analysis as resembling "the essence of U.S. policy for at least the last decade. Certainly, the Obama administration has been working to do what Friedberg suggests…." Friedberg would be surprised to hear that, since a central thrust of his argument is precisely the opposite. It may be that what really agitates Nathan is Friedberg's insight that "the truth is that China is too important to be left to the China hands."

Friedberg's policy recommendations hardly amount to calls for American belligerence in response to China's emergence. Indeed, his concluding chapter is appropriately entitled "Can America keep its balance?" to preserve the benefits of engagement while balancing and parrying China's military buildup and political assertiveness. Friedberg gives several specific suggestions about how to do precisely that, such as finding "cost-effective ways to blunt, counter, sidestep and defeat the [PLA's] rapidly maturing anti-access/area denial capabilities," or making it "embarrassing, and perhaps illegal, for American companies to assist China security services." As Friedberg patiently explains, he seeks not an arms race with China, but simply to "strengthen deterrence by restoring a balance upset by China's relentless buildup." And he correctly stresses Washington's imperative need to enhance and broaden its existing Asian alliances and partnerships.

Although Friedberg is an academic by profession and temperament (he is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School), his book, like everything written about China today, will be viewed in a political light. And since, in contemporary politics, no good deed goes unpunished, Friedberg, a former deputy assistant for national security affairs in the Office of the Vice President Dick Cheney, can fully expect a storm of vilification. He will richly deserve this wrath, because he has relentlessly exposed the intellectual and strategic weaknesses and errors of the prevailing mindset in Washington. For this, in fact, he deserves great credit.

John Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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