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Wily Panda, Wary Eagle: Book review of "A Contest for Supremacy" by Aaron Friedberg

John Lee

When it comes to the crowded book genre of US-China relations, crude distinctions are made between the “panda huggers” and the “China bashers”. Aaron Friedberg is a highly regarded professor from Princeton University and author of two books on British and American strategic and diplomatic history. Although first and foremost an academic, the fact that he was also a senior foreign policy adviser to vice-president Dick Cheney from 2003-05 could raise suspicions that A Contest for Supremacy is more about bashing than hugging the panda.

Friedberg would probably respond that branding a person or their work one way or the other is an emotive discussion-killer and therefore a distraction. And he would be correct. True, the book pulls few punches in examining Chinese behaviour, strategy, tactics and presumed intentions, in addition to the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities. If it must be labelled, the book is clearly more “China threat” than it is “panda hugging”.

But A Contest for Supremacy is properly and fairly assessed according to why it was presumably written and what it is designed to be. Part of it is a concise overview of strategic and diplomatic history of relations between the two countries, and this is performed competently. The more important purpose of Friedberg’s endeavour is to shake away what the author sees as an entrenched complacency in Washington circles in dealing with China’s rise and the threats to American interests in Asia.

To achieve this, the author has to not only inform—which is a scholar’s task—but also persuade. Using primarily open sources, he does not purport to achieve this by offering any new or unique information about China. Instead, to use the terminologies that Donald Rumsfeld made famous, Friedberg’s modus operandi is to methodically analyse the “known knowns” about China and offer prudent responses to the “known unknowns”. In this, he succeeds in doing so more calmly, cogently and incisively than other authors—meaning that A Contest for Supremacy is likely to be read, remain relevant, and to the delight of the publisher, still be selling well for years to come.

There are usually two approaches in answering the policy question of what to do about China’s rise? The first approach is to immerse oneself in all things Chinese—its language, culture, domestic policy debates, and jostling of factions within the country’s opaque and labyrinthine politics. By understanding the myriad nature of the complex beast from the ground up, one is presumably in a better position to form a more effective China policy. This is the standard approach of the growing but still exclusive and fortified community of “China-hands”.

The other is what a classical international relations scholar would do: assess presumed intention by observing China’s past and current behaviour, assess developments in its military and economic capability, and apply these facts to existing theories and models of international politics that best explain what is actually happening.

A Contest for Supremacy clearly belongs in the latter camp. But I suspect Friedberg’s target is not the cognitive approach as such—since his thesis is partially informed by developments and debates within China—but influential voices from the American China-watching community.

As he states in the preface: “Most of the China experts whom I encountered seemed to believe that a Sino-American rivalry was either highly unlikely, too terrifying to contemplate, or (presumably because talking about it might increase the odds that it would occur) too dangerous to discuss. Whatever the reasons, it was not something that serious people spoke about in polite company.”

In the author’s own words, “Not being a card-carrying member of the China-watching fraternity freed me from most of these inhibitions”.

These sentiments almost guarantee the penning of negative reviews from the majority of China-watchers. But it is worth dwelling on this issue because implied in A Contest for Supremacy is the provocative argument that decision-makers in Washington have not always been well served by much of the country’s China-watching fraternity.

To his credit, Friedberg’s criticisms of the fraternity are forensic rather than shrill. Instead, he offers implicit arguments as to why many China-watchers are getting it wrong.

For one, the lack of transparency in all aspects of China’s decision-making, institutions and reporting means it is impossible to know what its leaders and generals are really thinking. Besides, in a tightly controlled system such as China’s, the media, academics and think-tanks depend on Communist Party support and approval for their existence and livelihood. Combined with the lack of transparency and poor access to information for even domestic experts, individuals and institutions of influence tend to simply reiterate the official line in the guise of offering “independent” analysis.

Often lured by exclusive access to Chinese officials, experts and documents, and sometimes captivated and enthralled by the system they are trying to illuminate, many China-watchers unwittingly end up doing the same by uncritically repackaging Beijing’s official line in their articles and briefings. For example, concepts such as China’s “peaceful development” and its desire for a “harmonious world” are often accepted uncritically by some China-watchers when these would be dismissed as self-serving if issued by any other great power.

When it comes to contemporary debate about American-China policy, the critical piece of recycled wisdom A Contest for Supremacy wants to re-examine is the line put forward by almost all China-watchers: “To treat China as a strategic competitor, or even worse as an enemy, is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy and ensure it will become just that.”

According to my reading of Friedberg’s thesis, the problem with this line of reasoning is that it incorrectly assumes an inherent passivity on the part of the Chinese—one that says Beijing’s current and future ambitions and policies will be shaped primarily by how it is treated by America. But there are three major problems with this reasoning.

First, the body of international theory and history tells us that serious tension between America and China is almost inevitable. As Friedberg puts it, the rivalry is deeply rooted in the shifting structure of the international system. Relations between dominant and rising states are uneasy and often violent. Indeed, the transfer of global power from Britain to America is perhaps the only instance of such shifts occurring peacefully over the past several hundred years.

Second, values matter. And this is where Friedberg is bucking the trend since “nuanced” views on US-China policy increasingly means ignoring the fact that the two most powerful countries in the world have contrasting political systems. Yet, Friedberg makes a strong case that democratic America will have a difficult time accepting the emergence of a peer with such disparate political values and practices. Likewise, if authoritarian China keeps rising, it will find it hard to tolerate an American-led regional and global order with “democratic community” as one of its pillars.

Third, A Contest for Supremacy argues that China already views America as a strategic competitor and is behaving as such—meaning that debates about how best to tame China are redundant. For example, China’s military modernisation program is designed to erode American capabilities, and restrict the latter’s military action. Beijing’s diplomatic strategies and tactics appear designed to dilute the relationship between America and its security allies and partners, or at least to compel regional states to remain on the sidelines in any future spat between the two giants.

Overall, Friedberg makes a strong and detailed case that Beijing seeks to deter America from engaging in military conflict in the short term, and ease America out of Asia in the longer term once China has acquired sufficient power. As he puts it, the ultimate goal is to “win without fighting”. Friedberg offers a number of reasons—political, strategic, and historical—why the Communist Party wants China returned as the preponderant power in Asia. These are ominous trends in the Sino-American relationship, meaning tension is increasingly likely to overwhelm the perceived drivers of co-operation and peace such as enhanced economic, cultural and people-to-people links.

That such behaviour and outlook is perfectly understandable from the Chinese viewpoint is true but irrelevant. The bottom line for America is that it has two basic options: to compete or to cede in Asia.
These are still early days in what is likely to be a protracted struggle. At this stage, there is no suggestion that American leaders are contemplating the latter. But Friedberg is warning that complacency and reluctance by American policy-makers and experts to face uncomfortable facts, recognise troubling trends, and imagine disaster could mean that US leadership in Asia could conceivably end in decades—perhaps with a whimper (forced to cede) rather than a bang (war).

Friedberg wisely concedes there are alternative and inherently unknowable futures for China. Although focusing on Chinese strengths, there are “known unknowns” but also “known knowns” when it comes to debilitating economic and social weaknesses. China is a weak country with a fragile society in many respects. It is probably asking too much of any one book to elaborate on these in greater depth, and work through how they might further shape Sino-American relations and policy responses. But China’s state-dominated political-economy also means it is a strong and rich state, with formidable resources in the hands of the ruling party—meaning Friedberg’s overall thesis about the enormity of China’s challenge to America in the region is still on solid ground.

Besides, A Contest for Supremacy is not written to offer a comprehensive net assessment of China’s rise but soberly suggest a prudent path ahead for contemporary American policy in Asia. In my view, the book is worth buying, but more crucially also worth reading, because it succeeds in this endeavour.

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