The Magazine

Friendly Rivals?

The Chinese challenge to American power.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By GARY SCHMITT
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One reviewer has already complained that Friedberg leans too heavily on discerning China’s geopolitical intentions for hegemony through analysis of the writings of Chinese think-tankers, academics, and the few military officers permitted to write about such matters. But Friedberg is the first to admit that when you are talking about China’s intentions, you are really talking about the intentions of a select few within the top echelon of the leadership of the People’s Republic. And given the secrecy with which they surround themselves, knowing precisely what they think is virtually impossible. But that said, it seems inconceivable—especially in a one-party state as controlling as China can be—that such writings would be tolerated over the period they have been if they did not reflect, in some general fashion, the leadership’s own views. Moreover, Friedberg has the added advantage that those intentions are increasingly reflected in Chinese behavior—be they in Beijing’s willingness to throw its weight around by claiming sovereignty virtually over the whole of the South China Sea, aiming a vast arsenal of new missiles at Asian allies of the United States, or creating an “anti-access” military capability aimed directly at American power projection in the region.

Whether Americans want to admit it or not, the Chinese are obsessed with power, theirs and ours. They spend an immense amount of analytic time and effort producing what they have dubbed “comprehensive national power” assessments. And on that front, as Friedberg notes, given the American difficulties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in our economy, the Chinese believe they have every reason to be optimistic about the shifting balance of power in
the region.

A Contest for Supremacy does not ignore the various problems—demographics, domestic unrest, and so on—that China confronts as it attempts to keep growing in strength and influence. Nor does it simply pass by the underlying strengths that remain in America’s corner, such as a preponderance of stable and wealthy allies in the region. Yet, as Friedberg notes, the general drift of policies and events is not good, “for the fact is that if current trends continue, we are on track to lose our geopolitical contest with China.”

As serious a defeat as that might be to American interests and global stability, Friedberg’s prescription for reversing course, at first glance, seems oddly moderate. The last three administrations have pursued a policy of engaging with China (principally diplomatically and in trade) while hedging against China’s growing military power by adjusting American military force levels in the region and paying greater attention to allies and potential partners (such as India) who are also worried about China’s rise. A Contest for Supremacy does not argue for tossing the policy of “congagement” aside. To the contrary: 

The resilience of congagement is due to both the essential soundness of its strategic logic and the sturdiness of its domestic political foundations. Given all the uncertainties, it has made eminently good sense for the United States to continue to engage economically and diplomatically with China while seeking simultaneously to balance against its rising power. In any event, there is no alternative approach that is clearly superior on its merits.

No, what Friedberg wants is a better balance between the two, with the United States being (among other things) more candid about the nature of the competition, less Pollyannaish about the Chinese political system, more willing to commit the necessary resources to address the growing problems in the military balance, more willing to control exports of high technology to China, and more creative in working with our democratic allies to deter Chinese misbehavior and even generate an Asian community of like-minded regimes.

Of course, once laid out, what initially seems like a modest policy proposal—adjusting the balance within congagement—shows itself to be more significant and far more of a challenge to execute. The most obvious problem is that America is entering a period of greatly constrained resources: How the American military will come up with the money to meet the challenge of China’s own military buildup is, at this point, anybody’s guess. But the larger problem with “engaging but hedging”—a problem that has existed from day one—is that government officials are under constant pressure to keep engagement with China on a steady course because there are numerous, important issues to be talked about, and a massive amount of private business to be conducted.