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

A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia
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A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia ReviewIn his new book, Aaron Friedberg looks at the present and future of Sino-American relations. Friedberg is far less sanguine about the relationship than many other academics are. He criticizes what he considers the mainstream view, which trusts that China will eventually liberalize and argues instead that there is a real possibility of an increasingly dangerous economic and strategic competition between what will undoubtedly be the two most important powers of the twenty-first century. The current economic situation in the United States has increased the likelihood of such competition, according to Friedberg, because it has increased China's self-confidence while weakening American credibility.
There are some areas where I strongly agreed with what Dr. Friedberg had to say but there are others where I believed that he was too alarmist about the threat of China. Friedberg argues in the book that it is time for a serious national debate about China policy. On this point, he is absolutely right. He argues that during the last several years, Washington has focused on the Middle East, North Korea and other issues that demand immediate attention but will not be as important in the grand scheme of world politics as the U.S.-China relationship. Policy makers have also plaid down the possibility of conflict with China because of the perceived need for Beijing's cooperation in the war against terror. Friedberg makes a much-needed call for Washington to increase its focus on the China issue.
I am less persuaded by Friedberg's insistence on the likelihood that China will emerge as a strategic threat. Using translated Chinese documents, Friedberg contends that China's current strategy is to avoid confrontation with the United States while hiding its capabilities and "advancing incrementally" until it is the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region. To his credit, he is careful on this issue. He does acknowledge that there is a possibility that China will liberalize and claims that if he does, the threat that it poses to the United States would be diminished. But he also raises the prospect of a China that remains authoritarian and seeks to make its influence felt in Asia and around the world. If China takes this route, it is true that it would certainly threaten some of our interests. I agree with him that a more powerful China would increase its influence over the South China Sea and be able to bring Taiwan to terms. Nevertheless, it would be far more difficult for China to threaten and project its power onto America's more significant economic and strategic partners in the Asian region such as India, South Korea and Japan. These nations all have significant economic and military capabilities in their own right and could probably contain China to some degree, even without American assistance. In discussing the balance of power, Friedberg should have taken the capacities of our allies into account. I also think Friedberg exaggerates the degree to which China wants to see American influence removed from the Asian region. China has welcomed the United States as a stabilizing and restraining force in Japan and Korea in the past and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Even if China remains authoritarian, it will still have many common interests with the United States in Asia.
There are some places where the author has a tendency to give too much background information. In the opening chapter, for instance, he talks about the shift in the global balance of economic power. He did not need to go all the way back to the Middle Ages to do this, however, and much of his historical analysis here feels superficial and is not particularly new or interesting. Friedman's book could also have benefitted from a chapter on economic competition. He only mentions Africa, which is becoming another site of Sino-American conflict a handful of times.
While I have my disagreements with this author, however, there are places where he offers excellent analysis. His substantive chapters on recent Chinese and American policy, the balance of influence and the balance of power are filled with keen insight. He builds on the work of other recent scholars such as Joshua Kurlantzik (The Charm Offensive) to demonstrate how China has tried to improve its image in Asia and augment its soft power, sometimes at the expense of the United States. He also has very good detailed information on the comparative military strengths of the United States and China, showing how the PRC can offset current American advantages with the technologies that it is developing. As an academic and former policymaker, Friedberg does a great job of framing the issues in ways that will be useful both in Washington and in the university. Overall, while I believe that Friedberg sometimes exaggerates the threat posed by China he deserved credit for writing an interesting book that challenges prevailing wisdom.A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia Overview

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