A Marriage of Inconvenience


“A Contest for Supremacy; China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia” by Aaron L. Friedberg

W. W. Norton Company, 2011, 360 pp.

How have US-China relations changed over the years? Will America keep its advantage? Can China keep on rising? Is conflict inevitable? Who will be the supreme power in Asia in the 21st century? A professor at Princeton University and a former deputy assistant for national security at the Office of the Vice President Dick Cheney, Aaron L. Friedberg, answers these and many more pertinent questions in his third book, A Contest for Supremacy. He sheds light on the single most important geopolitical relationship of our times, whose development directly impacts East Asia and reverberates throughout the globe in loud echoes.


The book opens by recounting the history which begat the current situation, from the Vasco da Gama era, to that of Western imperialism, to the 2nd World War, and the modern Asian rebirth. Friedberg sets the stage for the greatest power play since the end of the Cold War and explains the origins and meaning of its building blocks. On this set he places two characters, America and China, as well as many supporting roles, such as India, Vietnam, and the UN, and clarifies how they pirouette around each other and navigate the East Asian stage.

Exposition – A brief history

Friedberg’s play begins on the 1st of October 1949 when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is proclaimed. Over the following decades, China has a tumultuous relationship with the USA characterized by shifting strangeness, friendship, hostility, suspicion, reconciliation, and, above all, uncertainty. America, being the preponderant power of Asia after squarely beating Japan a few years back, is guarded against this new entrant and sees it as oppressive, duplicitous, dangerous, and perhaps most of all – red.

China does little to dispel this image and often acts in ways which confirm the American fears. Thus, the first period of their relation is best described as containment, where the USA tries to stop China’s rise, deny it access to technology, isolate it diplomatically, and even goes as far as to not acknowledge its existence. Beginning in the 1960’s however, the USA begins to see the PRC in a utilitarian fashion, discerning that the country offers an untapped potential of anti-Soviet muscle and fervor after the ideological and political Sino-Soviet split.

1979 marks a new act in relations between the two protagonists; the USA acknowledges the Beijing government and now officially regards it as Chinese in opposition to its ally in Taipei. This period of alignment, where America bolsters China with diplomatic, financial, and technological access, and both players cooperate to a limited extent to engross all aspects of the Soviet comprehensive national power, slowly comes to an end when the Soviet danger recedes.

Rising Action – Handling an emerging power

1989 is the last turning point in Friedberg’s play. The definite end of the Soviet menace made the tentative US-China partnership redundant, and the Tiananmen massacre reminded Washington just how intractable and ideologically different Beijing is. Ever since, the USA has been conducting a policy of “Congagement” towards the PRC; a term similar to David Shambaugh’s “coopetition” entailing a US engagement of the People’s Republic on all fronts, while at the same time trying to contain or at least slow down its rise.


Economically, China is both a competitor and a source of opportunity, neither of which can be ignored, but engagement is about more than just profiting from the economic rise of this behemoth of 1.4 billion people. Briefly summarized, Friedberg provides three rationales for why the US should engage rather than sideline China:

  • Pragmatism: The PRC is already impossible to ignore. Both sides have an interest in working together where possible and avoiding conflict.
  • Upbringing: Becoming entangled in the web of international institutions and commitments, China would have an increasing stake in upholding the liberal order. Ideally, with time it will become a “responsible stakeholder” and both actors will see their roles converge.
  • Transformation: Washington supports a democratic political change. This may be inevitable as China becomes richer and its middle class accustomed to economic freedoms demands political freedoms too. America is there to hasten the process and provide a beacon of hope for dissidents.

At the same time, the US is preparing, albeit slowly and distractedly because of the global war on terror, to contain China. Bolstering its own military power in the Pacific, strengthening ties with surrounding nations, and slowing China’s military buildup by restricting arms and technology exports are the main forms America’s strategy takes.

Climax – in Beijing’s time

Concurrently, our second protagonist embraces a wholly different modus operandi. In line with Eastern military and philosophical traditions, it does not have a specific goal in mind but rather assesses the propensity of things, riding the waves of the geopolitical environment instead of making them. This, and not secrecy, may be the main reason behind its ambivalence and vagueness. The regime concludes that although peace and development remain the dominant world trends, there is also an increased propensity towards hegemonism, power play, and military interventionism. It adjusts accordingly.

China is also well-aware of its shortcomings in relation to the other main actor. Challenging America in any way could prove disastrous. Instead Beijing waits for multipolarity to emerge, another trend it believes to be on the horizon, as regional powers gain strength and momentum vis-à-vis the United States. In line with Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy, the nation is calm, observes, bides its time, hides its capabilities, and avoids provoking the “crouching eagle”.

What does China want in the end? Most likely some mix of preponderance in East Asia, a world safer for authoritarianism, alternative architecture of order, and an old-fashioned Middle Kingdom kowtow from its peripheral nations. For now, however, it must play down its actions, stress peaceful rise, and assuage the natural propensity of incumbent superpowers to challenge competitors.

Yet in this most genteel and meticulous play, the two actors interact ever more closely; the increasing flow of capital, people, goods, services, and ideas is slowly fusing them into what is described by the author as Chimerica – the single most important geopolitical organism in existence. The question is, who is shaping whom; is America taming China, or is China lulling America?

Falling Action – Growing security challenges

Yet there is more to it than just peaceful cooperation. The two protagonists’ military strength is increasing, and so are the possible fault lines between them. If China does not move towards democracy, sometime over the next forty years the tensions between the two actors may rise to a point where either one leaves the stage, or neither does and confrontation ensues. For now, the military balance of power strongly favors America, but with the Chinese buildup, area-denial capabilities, and sheer geographical distance America must travel, China may well gain an edge in Asia. The same goes for the Chinese nuclear arsenal which is already large enough for deterrence and a second-strike, while the USA pledges to diminish its own and is treaty-bound to abstain from developing intermediate range missiles.

Dénouement – What kind of regime in the future?

What will emerge at the end of the play is open for debate and largely depends on if and what kind of confrontation may occur. Either way, China’s regime may remain the same as it has been so far if it proves up to the task of perpetually controlling its population and maintaining a grip on power. It may also become a weak and unstable country and a rash political actor, as the internal challenges become ever more testing and absorbing, and the party drops its calculated and poised international policies in favor of quick remedies to shore up its legitimacy. Lastly, even if China moves towards some form of democracy, it may yet lapse into hyper-nationalism as is evidenced by its society’s impulses on which the party has to keep a closed lid.

Catharsis? – Well-rounded but lacking edge

The book is well-written and interesting; it deals with all the important themes and serves as a terrific clarification of the current situation. It is not however without flaws. The work is descriptive rather than practically or future-oriented – Friedberg’s predictions are few and cautious, they also tend to be very egalitarian, in that he treats them as equally likely and refuses to ascribe them degrees of probability. This may lead to the impression that the book is overly optimistic in regards to America’s future in Asia.

When it comes to military technology and actual warfare capabilities, the author goes into too much detail to treat it as a brief aside, yet far too little to actually explain and delve into the topic. He fails to explain why the exact type of rockets both sides use should be important to the reader.

Unfortunately, the social and political developments described in the book suffer from the same affliction and since in this context they are considerably more important than the military tech nuances, the flaw is all the more evident. Moreover, Friedberg avoids reaching a definite conclusion on a number of subjects. Instead he opts for stressing the potential hardships China will face in the future and hypothetical developments which might favor America. This seems like artificial neutrality, since some obvious patterns favoring the PRC emerge in the examples he gives. Whether it is the author’s caution or wishful thinking, it leaves the critical insinuations, which are numerous throughout the book, to be interpreted by the reader.

Reviewed by Konrad Duda

Photo c/o Ian Berry/CNNMoney/Shutterstock

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