A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia

January 12, 2012

The one constant about China is its complexity, at least for those outside. Finding the right conceptual framework within which to fit this continent-sized country has proved elusive. As Aaron Friedberg (who was US deputy assistant for national security during the George W. Bush presidency) shows, since 1949 the US has gone through three periods. In the first, from 1949 to 1969, the US practised a policy of freezing China out of the international system. Friedberg suggests that this stemmed from the US knowing China's economic weaknesses and hoping that these would bring about the fall of the Communist regime. From 1970 onwards, common recognition of the threat from the Soviet Union brought the US and China together in a dramatic detente, culminating in diplomatic recognition in 1979. This led to a third phase from the beginning of economic reforms in 1978 and marking what Friedberg calls an era of "congagement" - caught between fluctuating periods of intense engagement and containment.

Friedberg's main premise is that while there was much pragmatic wisdom in treating China neither as an ally nor as an enemy, the outside world, and especially countries such as the US that count themselves as liberal democracies, should not kid themselves too much about the kind of threat China is. That it is a threat is spelled out in terms of its military power, its ambitions in the region, and, most forcefully of all, its alien ideology. "It is...not China's rise alone, but the nature of its political system that is at the root of Washington's mistrust and hostility," Friedberg states. To think that economic engagement will magically transform China into something "like us" is naive. There is precious little sign yet, despite 30 years of experience to go on, of trade relations between China and the outside world, and in particular the US, somehow gradually converting the country to a Western model.

The solution Friedberg proposes is to have a policy in which the US, as a bastion of liberal beliefs and values, has a far harder-nosed understanding of the kind of threat China poses, a more subtle and perhaps more insidious threat than the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This is because the Chinese, with their mastery of deception, at least according to Friedberg, have created an illusion of compatibility. What they want in the end is to dislodge the US from its position of influence in the Asian region, to build up international alliances in their favour and to slowly mould the global system to the interests of their own economy and politics.

Friedberg is disparaging about sinologists, perhaps justifiably so. They have, he argues, been lulled into a system where they protect their vested interests and, on the whole, get slowly seduced by the very subject they are studying. He also admits that he knows little about the internal dynamics of the country; it is just as well that he does for it is here that his argument contains its largest flaws. Would that China were as unified in its diplomatic ambitions as he often assumes, and that its cultural characteristics were as homogeneous.

This is an energetically written, well-argued book, but in the end it is about a nation that is more the creation of an outsider's fancy than the state that exists. One reads it wishing fervently that one day some of the US' grand strategists on China might simply try to see the world from within the People's Republic. This is a country with not enough land to feed itself, ranked just 96th in the world for per-capita gross domestic product, and without enough water for its needs. These, rather than looming fights with the US, are what fill the minds of most Chinese leaders.

A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia

By Aaron L. Friedberg. W. W. Norton, 352pp, £19.99. ISBN 9780393068283. Published 31 October 2011

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