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.
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.
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.
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.