Over 24 centuries ago, Thucydides argued that the ultimate source of the Peloponnesian War was "the rise of Athens, and the fear this caused in Sparta." Students of world politics ever since have warned of the dangerous moment when a rising great power catches and surpasses the dominant status quo power. The obvious rising challenger to the United States today is China. Though aware of this fact, American foreign policy elites resist drawing the logical conclusion: that Beijing and Washington are entering into a protracted period of strategic competition which the U.S. cannot afford to lose.
Most of our China watchers maintain that the true danger in any Sino-American power transition stems from the United States, and that China's rise must be accommodated rather than blocked or contained. Both Democrats and Republicans have argued for two decades that by engaging China diplomatically and economically the People's Republic (PRC) will be nudged in a liberal democratic direction, and ultimately rendered harmless to U.S. national security. At the same time, American officials from both parties have cautioned that the U.S. must maintain a certain strategic presence in East Asia, as a hedge against Chinese expansion. But the chief emphasis on the American side has been on the overall necessity and benefits of engagement, as opposed to the strategic containment of China.
In his excellent book A Contest for Supremacy Princeton political scientist Aaron Friedberg questions the elite U.S. consensus on China in a manner sufficiently thoughtful, meticulous, and well-informed that he deserves to have a real policy impact. He begins by denying that the ongoing competition between Washington and Beijing is primarily the result, as some would have it, of misunderstandings or egregious policy errors. Both sides are basically behaving rationally, given their own geopolitical positions and domestic political systems. One would expect a rising great power challenger such as today's China to insist on a certain level of deference commensurate with its burgeoning capabilities. One would also expect an existing "hegemon" such as the United States to develop countermeasures against such a challenge. As Friedberg points out, the current competition is exacerbated by the fact that China is an undemocratic one-party state, while the United States tries to promote democracy when it can. Progressive opinion within the U.S. urges political liberalization on China, not realizing what a deadly threat this must appear to Beijing. Meanwhile, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders seek to make the world safe for autocracy by deflecting democratic pressures within and around the perimeter of their gigantic nation.
Friedberg is skeptical of the conventional argument that a growing emphasis on globalization, multilateral institutions, and non-traditional issues such as climate change will "tame" China. China's leaders have their own priorities, which are very different from those on the Western liberal wish list. Beijing talks about the need for progress on climate change, while conceding nothing of any value; urges multilateral solutions case by case, in order to constrain American power without constraining China's; and taps into global markets selectively and secretly to strengthen its own military technologies. When criticized on human rights, China's leaders often react hysterically, unable to conceal their extreme sensitivity and what it might imply for their continued rule. But for the most part, Beijing has been fairly successful in pursuing a low-key, multi-decade expansion of Chinese economic, diplomatic, and strategic influence without setting off too many alarm bells in the West. China has tamed American opinion more than America has tamed China's.
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It is clear where current trends are heading, in the absence of adjusted U.S. policy. The balance in the Western Pacific will continue to shift in China's favor, as Beijing modernizes its military and deploys asymmetric strategies to threaten and deter American forces based nearby. Longstanding disputes over Taiwan or the South China Sea could finally be resolved in China's favor. Beijing's economic preponderance within the region would be supplemented by diplomatic and strategic preponderance. This, in fact, is the PRC's goal: the erosion of U.S. military and diplomatic leadership along the East Asian littoral and the restoration of China's historical dominance in that region. The CCP would then be able to utilize this secure position as a base from which to support authoritarian governments in other parts of the world, and would have every reason to do so, since the contraction of democratic governance internationally would help ensure the continued rule of the CCP at home.
Friedberg is optimistic that this nightmare scenario can be prevented. For one thing, looking out over the next quarter century, China has some serious weaknesses. Its current economic growth rates will not last forever. The country's one-child policy will lead to a dramatic aging and shrinking of China's population, with all that entails for national economic power and stability. America, meanwhile, has certain enduring national strengths, in spite of the current impression of borderline bankruptcy and malaise. If the U.S. reorients its China policy in a more realistic direction, Friedberg is confident that America can prevail in any long-term competition.
The policy implications are straightforward. The U.S. must strengthen its regional alliances and partnerships, both old and new; augment its military power and bolster its regional strategic presence; implement export controls on American technologies useful to China's military; and speak out frankly when China acts in ways counter to American interests. As Friedberg says, the challenge is not so much in listing these necessities as in actually following through on them, especially in light of the smothering self-censorship, defeatism, and half-heartedness that have come to characterize many Western discussions of Sino-U.S. competition. The first necessity, he suggests, is for Americans to start thinking and talking seriously about how to conduct what is likely to be a long-term strategic competition with a very capable rival. Nobody, including the Chinese, wants a Sino-American war. But the best way to prevent one, and at the same time secure the kind of world that most Americans want, is to make it clear to Beijing that the United States is in earnest about maintaining its commitments in the region.
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Friedberg places considerable emphasis on the idea that China's eventual democratization will bring Sino-American strategic rivalry to an end, in a manner conducive to U.S. national security interests. A truly liberalized China, he argues, will be friendly to America, rather than threatening; the U.S. will then be able to relax, since China's growing power will be peaceful and democratic rather than the opposite. The question is how to get there from here, and what else might happen along the way. Friedberg himself notes that the hoped-for Chinese political liberalization of the past 20 years has never materialized. This is a central theme of A Contest for Supremacy. He also notes, quite rightly, that an initially democratizing China might be more unstable and nationalistic in its foreign policy than the current regime. Yet a friendly, liberal China emerges in the book as a kind of deus ex machina, solving the problem of the new power's rise. Fortunately, Friedberg's practical recommendations regarding U.S. foreign policy are on the mark in any case. Whether or not China is likely to democratize within our lifetime, and whether or not that leads to a less anti-American foreign policy, the U.S. should follow Friedberg's advice and balance Chinese power more effectively—diplomatically, economically, ideologically, and militarily.