The Magazine

Friendly Rivals?

The Chinese challenge to American power.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By GARY SCHMITT
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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.

Georgetown China Basketball Brawl

Basketball diplomacy, Beijing, August 18, 2001

China Daily / RTR / Newscom

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.

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.