A Contest For Supremecy

There is a curious bias on the part of most authors of books on China. The more you read they more you realize that they tend to be polarized towards very pro China (China Doves) or very wary of China (China Hawks). I feel much of the American public tends to be hawkish but the most prominent sinologists are very dovish to the extent they ignore or gloss over tough issues. Aaron L. Friedberg however comes from a pointedly hawkish point of view in his book Contest For Supremacy.

The underlying theme being that China’s rise can be the cause of international negative externalities and that China doves are ignoring major risks when they promote a soft stance on China. His argument is logically straight forward and grounded in history. He begins by examining previous instances of countries coming into their power such as the US, Britain, and Japan. In each case the country naturally increases its regional influence at the coat of distant competitors, his point is that a powerful China would also naturally prefer to exclude competitors (especially the US) from east Asia. The problem with this of course being China’s autocratic government’s illiberal stance on human rights and aggressive behavior towards the US’s Asian allies.

Friedman really digs into the modern Sino-American history showing the evolving interests and strategies of America and China over the last sixty years. The great thing about this analysis is that is combines an interesting high level view of US-China interactions from both the US’s and China’s perspectives but also shows how a nations interaction is governed by both national interests and national inclinations. While America engages with China because of the benefits they gain, they have repeatedly backed off of closer ties due to their moral differences.

This simultaneous pull and push on American policy has led to an interesting strategy towards China. The current American strategy of simultaneous containment and engagement (“congagement”) is complex and seemingly counter productive. The US is working towards more engagement and improving Chinese power in some realms such as the economy while at the same time attempting to contain Chinese power in others such as the military. This is a strange game America plays because of the obvious connections between these realms. As the Chinese economy improves and modernizes its military can’t help but improve as well.

One of Friedman’s main points is that America must come to terms with the possibility that China will not naturally liberalize as it grows, and that a powerful illiberal China would be a huge problem for the world. The persistent belief that economic engagement will inevitably lead to political liberalization in China hasn’t shown traction but many doves are very willing to keep blindly promoting it.

I think this was a good book that approaches the US-China relationship in a very intelligent way. By starting from an historical look at how other nations have grown into power it shows that the current distribution of power will necessarily change. Then Friedman goes into what this change will mean for the US and its allies, and how overlooking the danger of illiberal China will lead to problems. There isn’t any one obvious answer this problem though and Friedman’s suggestions show this. Improving our regional alliances and ensuring regional military power are both good but wont change the fact that a giant autocratic nation is going to cause issues. The single most powerful suggestion the author makes is to be aware of what is happening and for me this book successfully opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the issue.

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