A CONTEST FOR SUPREMACY: CHINA, AMERICA AND THE STRUGGLE FOR MASTERY IN ASIA
Norton, $27.95, 360 pages
Reviewed by Brett M. Decker
A basketball game between Georgetown University and China’s Bayi Rockets ended in a bench-clearing brawl last week. The altercation began with a cheap-shot foul by a Chinese player and ended with his teammates trying to bash Hoyas over the head with chairs. It’s a fitting metaphor for the looming showdown between China and America: Beijing wants to beat us on the world stage and is willing to break every rule in the book to win.
Sporting events frequently serve as fields of battle to hash out wider, more serious conflicts. Joe Louis pummeling Max Schmeling in the ring in 1938 was seen as a knockout punch against Nazi racialist theories, just as the U.S. hockey team’s 1980 victory over the Soviet Union foreshadowed our eventual drubbing of communism. It’s in that light that the Georgetown-Bayi fight should be viewed. There is an escalating strategic faceoff between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) in which every small match-up between the two nations is indicative of the larger competition. Who wins the Olympics or a new trade deal is seen to have implications regarding which culture or system is superior. The Cold War wasn’t merely an arms race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. but addressed more existential issues of what is better: capitalism or socialism, democracy or totalitarianism, freedom or tyranny. These same principles are being tested today.
In his new book, “A Contest for Supremacy,” Princeton professor Aaron L. Friedberg explains how China poses a serious threat to our future. At the root of the problem is a massive buildup by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PRC has enjoyed economic growth averaging more than 10 percent per year for more than two decades and has pumped a lot of its newfound cash into improving what already is the world’s largest standing army. Much of this development of war-fighting capability is not transparent, which is faithful to the late leader Deng Xiaoping’s rule to “hide our capabilities and bide our time.” This is cause for alarm in the Western Pacific, where Beijing is aggressively exerting influence. “The range, accuracy and number of medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles in China’s arsenal will soon give it the option of hitting every American and allied base in the region with warheads that could put craters in the middle of runways, smash through concrete aircraft shelters, and shut down ports, power plants and communications networks,” the author informs. The PLA is also working on secret weapons to debilitate U.S. aircraft carriers and thus limit America’s mobility in the area. The post-Cold War luxury of viewing the Pacific Ocean as merely another American lake is no more.
The Chinese danger hasn’t been on the front burner of most policymakers for various reasons. Money has a lot to do with it. With half a trillion dollars in annual trade between the two nations, there are many people with a financial stake in keeping the relationship alive who have no interest in giving credence to negative trends. Another problem is the pro-Beijing bias of experts in academic, policy and military fields, where China watchers tend to be Sinophiles who bend over backward to justify even the most indefensible actions by the regime. These factors lead to a dangerous optimism - or naivete - in U.S. political circles about Red China’s motivation and intentions.
Just as important, however, is the geopolitical reality of the past decade. As Mr. Friedberg points out, “Since 9/11, our government has been heavily preoccupied with responding to the urgent dangers of terrorism and proliferation, dismantling jihadist networks, confronting ‘rogue states’ like North Korea and Iran, and trying simultaneously to stabilize, transform and pull back from Afghanistan and Iraq.” In other words, Washington has been distracted, and Beijing has taken advantage of that.
America’s desperate financial straits are bringing our recent unipolar power position to an end, which will help alter the global balance of power in China’s favor. The proper question regarding Chinese ascendancy isn’t whether there will be a confrontation between America and the PRC. There already is one, and it’s playing out in corporate boardrooms and war-game sessions - and on basketball courts - every day. The more pressing query is what form conflict will take. Will a peaceful status quo continue based on diplomatic and commercial hostilities, or will this relatively cold war erupt into a hot one?
America needs to be prepared for the worst. China is.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is co-author of the forthcoming book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, November 2011).