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The Chinese challenge to American power
R. D. Ward/US Department of Defense
There have been two major books published this summer on relations between the United States and China: Henry Kissinger’s On China and this one. And while Kissinger himself has had an immense impact on how those relations have unfolded over the past four decades, Aaron L. Friedberg’s volume will likely be far more important in laying out the path forward.
The irony is that Kissinger, the grand realist of American statecraft, presents a picture of China that romanticizes the country’s past, overstates its leadership’s sophistication, and offers up little more than hope that, going forward, relations between the two powers will go smoothly. In contrast, Friedberg, the Ivy League professor, takes more seriously the internal and external implications of China’s continued rule by one party, its ambitions to reclaim its once-dominant position in Asia, and, if need be, to do so at the expense of the United States. And it is Friedberg, not Kissinger, who lays out a hardheaded but sensible road map for meeting the challenge presented by China’s rise.
Undoubtedly, A Contest for Supremacy will be read by most China hands as needlessly alarmist and as fueling fears that conflict with China is inevitable. But the book’s goal is the opposite: While Friedberg sees a competition for preeminence between the United States and the People’s Republic as highly likely now and in the foreseeable future, he is at pains to argue that a properly balanced approach to Beijing by Washington can keep that competition within bounds. The key will be whether the United States has the will and the resources to (as Friedberg says) “stay in the game” over the long term until China itself changes and/or its own internal dysfunctions stall out its rise to great power status.
“Whether Americans want to admit it or not, the Chinese are obsessed with power, theirs and ours.” – Gary Schmitt
But, Friedberg argues, to find the right balance requires recognizing, first of all, that there is indeed a real competition taking place between the two countries. Today’s problem is that too many policymakers, academics, and members of the business elite share a kind of “blinkered optimism” about relations. Accordingly, existing problems are depicted as peripheral or temporary, a product of misperceptions, which can be fixed by even more engagement with China.
If only. In one of the book’s most important chapters, Friedberg analyzes the persistent factors driving the rivalry, along with those factors that, arguably, might mitigate it. Of the latter, he looks at economic interdependence, possible political reforms, China’s integration into a web of international institutions, threats and problems we hold in common, and the fact that both the United States and China possess strategic nuclear arsenals. On the other side of the ledger is the insecurity and instability brought about by the narrowing power gap between the once-clearly-dominant United States and China, compounded by the “yawning ideological chasm that separates the two nations.” The change in relative economic, military, and diplomatic power would be difficult enough to deal with all by itself, but the difference in political systems and governing principles can’t help but be both “an obstacle to measures that might reduce uncertainty and dampen competition, and a source of mutual hostility and mistrust.”
The core problem is that the factors that might substantially dampen the competition are, upon inspection, either ambiguous in that regard–for example, economic ties between the two countries are themselves becoming strained–or too weak to move relations in a fundamentally different direction. As both the Bush and Obama administrations have learned, while Beijing in recent years might have expressed greater concern about the problem of nuclear proliferation in North Korea, this has not meant that it gives Pyongyang’s nukes the same priority as Washington, or that this concern takes precedence over other policies, such as keeping a secure buffer state between itself and an American ally, South Korea.
One reviewer has already complained that Friedberg leans too heavily on discerning China’s geopolitical intentions for hegemony through analysis of the writings of Chinese think-tankers, academics, and the few military officers permitted to write about such matters. But Friedberg is the first to admit that when you are talking about China’s intentions, you are really talking about the intentions of a select few within the top echelon of the leadership of the People’s Republic. And given the secrecy with which they surround themselves, knowing precisely what they think is virtually impossible. But that said, it seems inconceivable–especially in a one-party state as controlling as China can be–that such writings would be tolerated over the period they have been if they did not reflect, in some general fashion, the leadership’s own views. Moreover, Friedberg has the added advantage that those intentions are increasingly reflected in Chinese behavior–be they in Beijing’s willingness to throw its weight around by claiming sovereignty virtually over the whole of the South China Sea, aiming a vast arsenal of new missiles at Asian allies of the United States, or creating an “anti-access” military capability aimed directly at American power projection in the region.
Whether Americans want to admit it or not, the Chinese are obsessed with power, theirs and ours. They spend an immense amount of analytic time and effort producing what they have dubbed “comprehensive national power” assessments. And on that front, as Friedberg notes, given the American difficulties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in our economy, the Chinese believe they have every reason to be optimistic about the shifting balance of power in the region.
A Contest for Supremacy does not ignore the various problems–demographics, domestic unrest, and so on–that China confronts as it attempts to keep growing in strength and influence. Nor does it simply pass by the underlying strengths that remain in America’s corner, such as a preponderance of stable and wealthy allies in the region. Yet, as Friedberg notes, the general drift of policies and events is not good, “for the fact is that if current trends continue, we are on track to lose our geopolitical contest with China.”
“Of course, once laid out, what initially seems like a modest policy proposal — adjusting the balance within congagement — shows itself to be more significant and far more of a challenge to execute.” – Gary Schmitt
As serious a defeat as that might be to American interests and global stability, Friedberg’s prescription for reversing course, at first glance, seems oddly moderate. The last three administrations have pursued a policy of engaging with China (principally diplomatically and in trade) while hedging against China’s growing military power by adjusting American military force levels in the region and paying greater attention to allies and potential partners (such as India) who are also worried about China’s rise. A Contest for Supremacy does not argue for tossing the policy of “congagement” aside. To the contrary:
The resilience of congagement is due to both the essential soundness of its strategic logic and the sturdiness of its domestic political foundations. Given all the uncertainties, it has made eminently good sense for the United States to continue to engage economically and diplomatically with China while seeking simultaneously to balance against its rising power. In any event, there is no alternative approach that is clearly superior on its merits.
No, what Friedberg wants is a better balance between the two, with the United States being (among other things) more candid about the nature of the competition, less Pollyannaish about the Chinese political system, more willing to commit the necessary resources to address the growing problems in the military balance, more willing to control exports of high technology to China, and more creative in working with our democratic allies to deter Chinese misbehavior and even generate an Asian community of like-minded regimes.
Of course, once laid out, what initially seems like a modest policy proposal–adjusting the balance within congagement–shows itself to be more significant and far more of a challenge to execute. The most obvious problem is that America is entering a period of greatly constrained resources: How the American military will come up with the money to meet the challenge of China’s own military buildup is, at this point, anybody’s guess. But the larger problem with “engaging but hedging”–a problem that has existed from day one–is that government officials are under constant pressure to keep engagement with China on a steady course because there are numerous, important issues to be talked about, and a massive amount of private business to be conducted.
What results is a general reticence by policymakers to do anything that might disrupt that process, and a propensity to overlook longer-run trends that potentially are more significant. What this means, in practice, is that it provides Beijing with leverage to threaten to withdraw from that engagement process if it deems any hedging measures (such as selling modern weapons to Taiwan) as going too far. In short, while you can shove two words together to coin the term “congagement,” they remain two distinct policies that rest uneasily with each other. As Friedberg himself admits, “squaring this circle” will not be easy.
A Contest for Supremacy is a rigorous and comprehensive account of the state of U.S.-China strategic relations, and by far, the most thoughtful and serious book to date on the topic. Predictably, many (if not most) Sinologists will pick at various points and object to its conclusions. But as Friedberg notes, “The truth is that China is too important to be left to the China hands.”
Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar and Director of Advanced Strategic Studies at AEI.
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