BOOK REVIEW US-China power imbalance threatens Asia A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia
by Aaron L Friedberg
Reviewed by Benjamin A Shobert
The extremes are easy: China as villain at one, pursuing global hegemony
achieved through a mish-mash of totalitarianism, socialism and capitalism. Or,
if you prefer, China as the benevolent rising power whose pursuits should be
understood only to the extent they enable the country to achieve its economic
The obvious danger in these extremes is that they are mutually exclusive and,
as such, have successfully promoted inaction. For Aaron Friedberg, professor at
Princeton University's Woodrow
Wilson School and author of the new A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and
the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, pursuing the status quo in the face
of China's rise would be a strategic error.
Friedberg's book is less a call to action and more a series of increasingly
probative questions and macro-observations that seek to determine whether
American policy towards China has grown complacent and, if so, whether we have
considered the mid and long-term implications of our complacency.
In this way, Friedberg's work echoes a similar question asked by James Mann in
his book The China Fantasy where Mann asked whether American policy
makers had really questioned how comfortable they would be with a rich and
powerful, but thoroughly totalitarian-socialist, China. Both authors clearly
have their own opinions on how the United States would respond to such a
possibility, and both equally worry that America's leaders will only address
the question when it is too late to change China or prevent the two countries
from colliding into one another.
For Friedberg, a holistic evaluation of China's military strategy coupled to an
appreciation of its reinvigorated defense spending should leave one with an
understanding that China's objectives and policies are not lining up as we had
predicted in the past. Why has this realization not more deeply impacted
American policy makers? Because, according to Friedberg, a "willful, blinkered
optimism on these matters" remains the most common position held by those in
the policy community.
Taking to task the community of China policy-hands who have long acted as
cheerleaders for China, offering to the American public the hope that if we
economically engage China they will ultimately liberalize their politics,
Friedberg believes their optimism has prevented more serious adjustments of
American policies towards China.
Early into A Contest for Supremacy, Friedberg establishes one of the
primary reasons he believes this optimism is unwarranted: at their core, the
American and Chinese systems of government have incompatible values. This is
problematic because, according to Friedberg, it adds another complication to
the underlying challenges inherent when two great powers find their respective
trajectories out of sync.
As he writes, "Deep-seated patterns of power politics are driving the United
States and China toward mistrust and competition, if not yet toward open
conflict. The fact that one is a liberal democracy while the other remains
under authoritarian rule is a significant additional impetus to rivalry." (pg
42) Surveying China, Friedberg sees a country still ruled by a heavy-handed
regime that mistrusts their own people and believes that maintaining order at
any cost justifies suppressing dissent and limiting personal freedom.
If Friedberg is correct, the optimism of the past has largely been warranted
for two reasons: shared economic interests and a hope that China would
ultimately come to look more like us. As the latter has become more and more
unlikely, American policy-makers are beginning to wonder if the most
fundamental precept that has guided US-Sino relations for three decades (engage
and "they" will come to look more like "us") is wrong.
If so, the American policy of engagement with China is going to have to change,
a change made that much more difficult to successfully execute because American
attitudes towards China have soured as the economy in the United States has
withered while China's has stayed strong.
Readers may wonder if the delicate rebalancing act Friedberg proposes is
possible against the backdrop of an increasingly frustrated American public who
largely believes much of their economic pain has been caused by China. To the
extent politics follow economics, the nuance of Friedberg's analysis and his
suggested policy adjustments - however good and necessary - will likely prove
difficult to actualize.
According to Friedberg, China's policy during this period has been to remain
largely opaque as to its longer-term objectives while making doubly sure that
those outside the country have their own vested interest in maintaining the
status quo. As he writes, "if [China] can delay the responses of potential
rivals and discourage them from cooperating effectively with one another, China
may eventually be able to develop its strength to the point where balancing
appears hopeless and accommodation to its wishes seems the only sensible
option." (pg 119)
This then becomes Beijing's primary aspiration: grow and become large enough,
and sufficiently interconnected with regional actors, that China becomes too
important to challenge.
Readers may encounter this conclusion and, even if they share fears over
China's rise, be tempted to shrug their shoulders at what Friedberg has
sketched out. His vision of the future has, admittedly, a certain feeling of
inevitability about it. But Friedberg is unwilling to allow the reader to stop
here, likely because he believes the response from within the region initially
from countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan will not be so sanguine, and
could well draw America into a conflict with China. This is where the bulk of
Friedberg's book focuses: how and why should America rebalance its relationship
It is a tricky transition because the narrative of Friedberg's analysis must
draw into sharp focus the dissimilarities between the American and Chinese
belief systems while elevating the very real strategic challenges posed by
China's expanding military reach without sounding alarmist. Outside his
advancement of the idea of how we might rebalance the strategic relationship
between the two countries, striking the right note between concern and
confidence remains an achievement of this book.
What A Contest for Supremacy advocates is that the United States place a
priority on rebalancing the strategic relationship between the two countries.
For Friedberg, this starts with America addressing its own economic and
political dysfunctions. Being successful at both will require American
politicians to summon their collective will and "take some novel and
potentially controversial long-term measures, such as the introduction of a
national consumption tax or a tax on energy use". (pg 271)
In his view, this is important because it would address the fundamental source
both of China's growing strength and America's cascading weakness: "China's
huge bilateral trade surpluses, and its continued accumulation of
dollar-denominated assets." (pg 270)
Beyond tending to our own economic well-being, Friedberg believes the United
States needs to re-affirm its commitment both to our Pacific allies, while also
working to ensure it has the tactical superiority in the Pacific theater to
"maintain a margin of military advantage sufficient to deter attempts at
coercion or aggression". (pg 274)
In the face of an American public increasingly tentative over the role of our
military and the fiscal reality that defense spending - like all other areas in
the public sector - will be cut, Friedberg's advocacy may well fall on deaf
Beyond these suggestions, Friedberg also believes successfully rebalancing the
US-Sino relationship will require American policy makers to stop trying to
focus primarily on the positive gains China has made. According to Friedberg,
this not only does nothing to "change Beijing's perceptions of US intentions
and strategy", but in the United States it also "risks raising public
expectations to unrealistic levels".
This is troubling because, among other things, it "set[s] the stage for
disappointment and a possible future backlash." (pg 265) Readers may finish
Friedberg's book wondering if this has already happened, and if so, what that
suggests about the future between our two countries.
His analysis is at times sobering, but not alarming, and in striking this
balance it is able to nudge along readers who might otherwise be comfortable
not rocking the boat at all. This is largely accomplished because while
Friedberg's primary emphasis is on US-Sino relations, his larger point is about
Specifically, A Contest for Supremacy is a reminder that America has
often found itself in wars due to a want of policy, not an overly antagonistic
or militaristic one. As such, Friedberg worries that America may one day wake
up to the reality that China's interests are not aligned with ours and in such
a moment America may find itself in the untenable position of having to choose
between accommodating China's wishes or pushing back, with the latter choice
being one that could well provoke conflict.
As readers finish Friedberg's book, some may feel a sense of despondency over
his conclusions. After all, to the extent his proscriptions require political
will and an ability to navigate increasingly complex geo-political waters,
America's most recent actions do not inspire confidence. It is possible to
leave A Contest for Supremacy with a feeling of foreboding, even a sense
of inevitability, born from a mistrust over America's ability to summon the
courage to master the rebalancing act Friedberg advocates.
In some ways, this may be the most important unanswered question of his book:
is the rebalancing he advocates for even possible now? The question of "whether
it is too late?" lingers in the mind. Wisely choosing to avoid playing the role
of soothsayer, Friedberg instead chooses to offer up to his readers the choice:
find the courage to re-balance or face the uncomfortable reality that inaction
may ultimately make conflict more likely. If America's response to its own
political crisis in the wake of 2008 is any sign, we may already have chosen.
A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia
by Aaron L Friedberg. W W Norton & Company (August 15, 2011). ISBN-10:
0393068285. Price US$27.96, 384 pages.
Benjamin A Shobert is the managing director of Teleos Inc
(www.teleos-inc.com), a consulting firm dedicated to helping Asian businesses
bring innovative technologies into the North American market.
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