"A Contest For Supremacy" By Aaron L. Friedberg

Jul 10, 2012

The typically calm yet wary diplomacy between the United States and the People’s Republic of China has been riled in recent months, putting each nation’s desire to keep the relationship on an even keel on full display.

Yet headlines about an escaped dissident seeking refuge with top American diplomats, and cloak-and-dagger corruption and intrigue at the highest rungs of the Communist Party also serve to highlight how prickly this important relationship can be.

In his book, “A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia,” Aaron L. Friedberg says American diplomats are far too concerned with getting along with this Asian economic juggernaut at the expense of U.S. security interests. China, he says, intends to gently and gradually rid East Asia and the western Pacific region of American influence as it quietly becomes an irresistible global economic force.

Friedberg is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, with expertise in international security in East Asia and defense policy. In “A Contest for Supremacy,” he asserts that the United States has tolerated China’s authoritarian government in the hope that its economic success will lead to a liberalization of its political system. Instead, diplomats should view the relationship as an increasingly intense struggle between the two titans over power and influence in Asia and around the world.

The heart of Friedberg’s argument is that Chinese leaders view U.S. insistence on human rights reforms in China and a liberalization of its one-party political system as the greatest existential threat to their regime. Without the ability to directly confront the U.S. militarily, Chinese leaders hope to discourage potential rivals from cooperating effectively with one another at the expense of Chinese interests. By so doing, China hopes to eventually develop its strength to the point where “balancing appears hopeless and accommodation to its wishes seems the only sensible option.”

So far, he says, the Chinese have been far more successful in marginalizing the U.S. in the region than the U.S. has been in liberalizing the Chinese government.

Alongside its economic and diplomatic efforts, China is developing military strategies and hardware to nudge American military power from the region. American countermeasures, Friedberg says, should include elimination of its economic reliance on China and a military capable of striking from great distances while protecting the South China Sea’s vitally important shipping lanes and important regional allies like South Korea, Japan and Australia.

Friedberg’s book is heavy on military security while quite light on the very important cultural and economic aspects of the U.S.-Chinese relationship. Even so, it provides an interesting and important perspective that is largely absent from the dialogue on this extraordinarily important relationship.