The Magazine

Beijing Rising

The Chinese challenge to American supremacy.

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

While Dyer’s description of the dangerous change to the balance of power is convincing, he also wisely identifies the obstacles to Chinese ambitions. In a chapter entitled “The Asian Backlash,” he reminds readers that while China may be accreting more power and influence, so are many other countries: India, Vietnam, and Indonesia are all potentially significant strategic players coming into their own. None of these countries wants to live in a region dominated by China, not only because each has haunting historical memories of a Sinosphere, but because each, too, is a postcolonial power that is prickly about its sovereignty and strategic autonomy.     

Indeed, the central point of Dyer’s chapter on “America’s Choices” is: If Washington makes the right choices by using deft diplomacy to win friends and influence people, keeping a continued, if subtle, emphasis on American values and principles, and establishing leadership on trade and the deterrence of Chinese aggression, America will maintain its prime place in Asian geopolitics.  

On Dyer’s main points, there is nothing with which to disagree. But when he walks into the debates about military strategy, Dyer wades into a quagmire. For example, in national security circles there is a debate about whether to take the fight to China now or engage in a protracted campaign of naval strangulation, giving China an “ulcer.” It is a false debate. A conflict with China would be unlike anything the United States has ever fought: China is a nuclear-armed continental power with massive strategic depth and a dynamic economy that can provide resources for defense. Depending on how, why, and where the conflict began, it could require the full spectrum of our military capabilities: strikes on Chinese military assets, naval strangulation, and the rapid defense of allies. 

Dyer also argues that America’s economic strangulation of Japan during World War II provides an example of a more promising path to victory over China than hitting mainland targets. But that misreads the Pacific war strategy: During World War II, the United States conducted such intense strategic bombing of the Japanese mainland that General Curtis LeMay famously confessed that he would have been considered a war criminal had America lost. It also would require American nuclear supremacy, another anachronistic idea that even Dyer’s hardheaded analysis ignores. Superior nuclear capabilities could deter conflict in the first instance and let Washington control escalation, making some Chinese military options unthinkable.

Dyer falls into the trap of thinking that there is some way to fight China through “indirect approaches,” which would keep a conflict limited and manageable. But his own well-conceived argument is that Washington and Beijing are locked in a geopolitical competition: Each country would probably believe that any conflict has a deeper meaning and higher stakes than its immediate cause. During a conflict, flashpoints that seem less consequential in peacetime could take on much greater significance for the global balance of power. And limiting a Sino-U.S. conflict seems implausible: Rather than an ulcer, Washington would have to induce cardiac arrest to stop Chinese aggression.  

That makes it even less possible “to keep Asians from having to choose sides.” This is another trope among Asia watchers: that, somehow, both Beijing and Washington can intensify their competition while other Asian states maintain neutrality. This is unlikely. Both protagonists need Asian countries on their side to win a competition or, if necessary, a conflict with the other. 

Still, Dyer convincingly argues that China has many limitations and obstacles to its aspirations as a great power: China’s nationalism is “brittle,” masking weaknesses undermining the Communist party’s legitimacy, and Beijing seems unable to confront its manifold political-economic weaknesses. And in a powerful chapter, Dyer demonstrates how a Chinese “soft power” campaign is doomed to fail because the Chinese system is just not attractive outside China—or to the Chinese themselves. In the end, the United States has the whip hand: Our democratic system assures long-term political stability; we are in the early innings of an energy revolution, driven by entrepreneurship; our primacy is relatively benign; and, if we choose, we can rebuild a military second to none. The big question is whether the United States will translate its strengths into continued power and whether it will use this power wisely to maintain our prime position in the face of a dynamic challenger.