The Magazine

Beijing Rising

The Chinese challenge to American supremacy.

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
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Great power competition and the machinations of revisionist states have returned to international politics with a surprising ferocity. The end of the Cold War was supposed to have ended such anachronisms, but the first decade of the 21st century awoke Americans to the danger still menacing the world. That danger was stateless jihadists in pursuit of ever-greater means of terrorizing. Now, even as Western elites have consigned geopolitical competition to the dustbin of history, big-power rivalry is back. And at a time when sharp-edged statecraft is required, the United States finds itself ill-prepared to play the game.

Presidents Xi Jinping, Barack Obama at The Hague (2014)

Presidents Xi Jinping, Barack Obama at The Hague (2014)

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Of the three major revisionist states, for now, Russia and Iran have been the most aggressive. But China is the strongest and has the greatest potential to upend the geopolitical arrangements that have been paid for in (mostly American) blood and treasure since the end of World War II. Like Moscow and Tehran, Beijing, too, faces manifold obstacles on the road to power and glory. But China’s sheer size, economic dynamism, increasing global interests, long peacetime military buildup, and sheer will to power pose the greatest challenges to the structure of international politics dominated by the United States.  

Only a decade ago, those who wrote about the growing competition between China and the United States were dismissed as alarmists, or worse. Since 2009, however, China’s behavior has mainstreamed the “alarmists” and marginalized the “true believers”—the intellectual offspring of Henry Kissinger, who imagined that China would be the one country in world history whose rise would be peaceful. Alas, there is no China exception to the continued drama of history, and the United States needs to prepare itself for a long-term great-power competition. 

Geoff Dyer makes three arguments in The Contest of the Century. First, China, having accrued more power, has shifted its approach to the world and now perceives the United States as weak. Communist party members are abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s guidance to “bide our time and hide our capabilities.” According to Dyer, China now “seeks to shape the world according to its own national interests,” moving from “rule taker to rule maker.”    

Second, as it more assertively advances its national interests, China is engaging in a geopolitical competition with the United States. The two countries are “starting to contest the high ground of international politics, from control of the oceans in Asia to the currency that is used in international business.” Dyer urges readers to forget the Chinese “bland rhetoric” and the hopeful wishes of “Davos Man” about the future of China: “China’s leaders think very much in geopolitical terms and would like to gradually erode the bases of American power.”     

Dyer’s third argument is that the United States is in a strong position to “deflect” the Chinese challenge to our position in the world. He dismisses the idea that a transition of global leadership from a declining America to a rising China is predetermined. He makes his case by assessing the military, political, and economic dimensions of the competition, including the many dilemmas and challenges that China faces in its quest for primacy. 

Regarding the Chinese military, Dyer quotes the former head of Pacific Command and director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, whose analysis is plain and jarring: China’s military spends “ninety percent of [its] time .  .  . thinking about new and interesting ways to sink our ships and shoot down our planes.” But the People’s Liberation Army is not only thinking; it is building ships and precision strike- and cyber-warfare capabilities at an astonishing pace. China’s leaders are working to push the U.S. Navy back from the “Near Seas”—the South, East, and Yellow Seas closest to China’s shores and through which so much of Chinese seaborne traffic passes from the Pacific and Indian oceans.  

While the Western Pacific is the center of gravity for the contest of the seas, the Chinese military is also looking to use the Indian Ocean to protect its seaborne traffic. It has developed ports and access agreements with countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The future of these facilities is as yet unclear, but there is little doubt that China is developing the means both to break out into the Indian Ocean and to protect its own maritime supply routes.