The Magazine

Beijing Rising

The Chinese challenge to American supremacy.

May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
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While Geoff Dyer writes with the fluency, accessibility, and keen eye of a journalist, Ashley Tellis makes a similar case with the analytical rigor and practical prescriptions of the policy-maker-scholar. In Balancing Without Containment, he sharpens the argument regarding how and why the United States must come out ahead in its contest with China. He sees the increasing Sino-American rift as the latest chapter in the oldest and truest story of international politics: a rising hegemon’s attempt to push aside the prime actor. He writes: “[T]he United States seeks to protect its global hegemony—as it must to advance its varied national interests—while rising Chinese power is oriented toward eroding American primacy.” American primacy is the biggest obstacle to Chinese visions of national rejuvenation, and, conversely, China’s attempt to “reshape the extant political order” to serve its own interests is the biggest obstacle to continued American primacy.    

In his deliberative style and comprehensiveness, Tellis reminds us that international politics has an enduring tragic quality that cannot be wished away by a therapeutic culture susceptible to therapeutic arguments. The greatest obstacles to peace are not “misunderstandings” that can, somehow, be resolved by “confidence-building mechanisms” and “trust-building.” Geopolitics is not marriage counseling. Tellis gets right to the heart of the matter: The United States must retain its global primacy to protect its manifold interests.   

Just as in domestic politics, the prime actor in international politics sets the agenda and makes the rules. The agenda and rules that Washington sets are favorable to the principles and interests required by a free society: a world safe for open markets, the free exchange of ideas and commerce, and the development of liberal polities. Primacy also provides us with: strategic autonomy to defend ourselves against threats before they arrive on American territory, and the unfettered ability to protect allies and to provide global goods from which we also benefit. China is the challenge to that primacy not only because of its increasing power and prominence but because of its leaders’ starkly different conceptions about what constitutes a good global order.      

Tellis terms his policy and strategy prescriptions “balancing without containment.” Any effort to contain China would be counterproductive, as it is a hub of global commerce from which all trading countries benefit. But the United States must build a favorable balance of power, and the associated tasks include building a military power second to none, shoring up allies throughout Asia, and enacting domestic economic reforms to facilitate the next wave of economic growth through dominance in innovation. The kind of growth Tellis envisages, incidentally, requires a reckoning with crippling debt.   

China’s behavior has aroused the national security elites to understand what analysts like Geoff Dyer and Ashley Tellis have known for years: Washington has to prepare itself for a long, protracted, and complex competition with a sophisticated adversary. We know that China will compete vigorously for power. The big question is whether we will. 

Dan Blumenthal is director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.