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

A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia by Aaron Friedberg. W. W. Norton, 2011, 384 pp.

Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics at Princeton University and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, thoroughly examines the past, present, and future trajectories of the US-China relationship. In A Contest for Supremacy, he combines a sweeping diplomatic history with a mainstream center-right appraisal of the security, economic, and political prospects facing the world’s two largest economies.

Given the author’s academic and policymaking credentials, it is remarkable how often Friedberg finds himself in stark opposition to the prevailing views held by Washington’s foreign policy community. He is loathe to accept the opinion of nearly 60 percent of Council on Foreign Relations members that China and the United States are destined to become strategic partners or even allies. Rather, Friedberg posits a future bilateral relationship characterized by increasing competition across the spectrum, and particularly in the diplomatic and security realms.

Significantly, Friedberg sees competition with China driven as much by ideological fissures as by the cold logic of geopolitics. In examining US foreign policy since 1945, he notes the tremendous difficulty presidents faced when forced to convince a skeptical American public of the good intentions of undemocratic and often repressive regimes. Given the emphasis placed by US political culture on the internal characteristics of foreign governments, and the unlikelihood (not to mention inadvisability) of this altering in the foreseeable future, Friedberg predicts an inherent tension between a pro-democracy United States and a demonstrably undemocratic China. Until the Chinese Communist Party is replaced by a regime more compatible with US values, Friedberg sees the two countries on a course for sustained rivalry.

Nowhere is this anticipated rivalry more pronounced than in the security and diplomatic chessboard of the Western Pacific. Friedberg analysis is particularly strong in assessing the diplomatic balance in the Asia-Pacific and the precarious position in which the United States finds itself—confronting both China’s geographic advantage and its own looming fiscal constraints. While Friedberg avoids a programmatic discussion of the capabilities needed for sustained US presence in the region, he is clear on the larger security challenges and the political implications of a real or perceived diminution of US power. An examination of the region’s current balance finds China holding the mantle of “strong horse,” with weaker states intertwined economically, wary of China’s growing might and penchant for belligerent rhetoric and fearful of a relative US economic and military decline. Friedberg notes that security developments in the region, and particularly Beijing’s broad-based and opaque military modernization, are calling into question US staying power and the durability of the US-built international order in East Asia.

The anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenge posed by China’s multispectrum defense modernization represents a fundamental threat to the US alliance structure in the Asia-Pacific. Although tending toward generalities in terms of defense acquisitions, Friedberg is cogent on the threats emanating from Beijing’s fast-paced development of platforms capable of directly challenging US access to the waters and airspace of the Western Pacific. US power in the region, as demonstrated during the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, is predicated on the ability of Navy carrier strike groups to freely access areas of potential conflict to deter and, if necessary, reverse attempts to alter the regional balance. Capabilities like China’s antiship ballistic missile, which could force US carriers and their relatively short-range complement of aircraft from China’s coastal waters, represent more than simply the acquisition of another weapons system. By potentially limiting US ability to project power in the Asia-Pacific, Beijing will force US allies such as Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan to reevaluate the alliance system.

Ultimately, Friedberg’s analysis contends that US military power undergirds the power of its alliances and partnerships in the region, which in turn sustains the liberal international order that has given rise to East Asia’s unprecedented peace and prosperity. China, confronted with US allies surrounding its vital sea lanes and an economy dependent on oceanic commerce vulnerable to the US Navy’s predations, represents an alternative model of regional leadership. In Friedberg’s telling, so long as Beijing remains a closed, authoritarian political system, the chances of prolonged competition with the United States remain virtually certain. Absent domestic political reform that would leave US public and political leadership significantly less suspicious of China’s intentions and internal processes, Friedberg foresees a century dominated by Sino-US rivalry in an evolving competition to shape the regional balance in East Asia and perhaps beyond.

Friedberg’s narrative is concise and evenly balanced between a recitation of the bilateral relationship’s postwar history and a series of astute predictions. In particular, his emphasis on the need for the United States to execute a serious and prolonged program of regional diplomacy while investing in the game-changing technologies required to sustain US military strength in the Asia-Pacific is particularly apt. By writing from a holistic and somewhat general perspective on the Sino-US relationship, Friedberg sheds important light on the tectonic forces that will shape the regional security environment for years to come.

Alexander B. Gray

Defense analyst, House of Representatives

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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