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Reviewed by John Coffey

A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia by Aaron L. Friedberg, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011, ISBN13- 978-0393068283, 384 pp., $27.95

“However absorbed a commander may be in the elaboration of his own thoughts,” Winston Churchill counseled, “it is necessary sometimes to take the enemy into consideration.” In this book, Aaron Friedberg of Princeton University serves a bracing tonic of realism, devoid of diplomatic “happy talk,” about the Sino-American contest for mastery in Asia. Having served from 2003-2005 as Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs and Director of Policy Planning in the Office of the Vice President, Friedberg disclaims membership in the Sinologist “fraternity” and sets out to speak candidly about the central struggle of our time. Acknowledging the tentativeness of his argument, he nonetheless believes this subject is too important to be left to the “China hands.”

America and China, Friedberg maintains, are engaged in a global struggle for power, rooted in geopolitical and ideological causes. No economic determinist, he argues the decisive factor is political, a clash between America’s liberal-democratic goal of regime change in China versus the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) determination to maintain its authoritarian rule. China’s political liberalization offers the best hope for a stable entente; continued growth of Chinese power under its authoritarian regime will embolden more aggressive Chinese behavior abroad. China is reaching economic parity with the U.S., and current trends favor Chinese regional supremacy.

Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms propelled China’s international ascent, unleashing three decades of phenomenal economic growth, averaging 9 percent annually, until by 2008 it had become the world’s second largest economy. Friedberg recognizes that formidable obstacles – overinvestment creating excess capacity, an aging population, environmental degradation, deteriorating public health, bad bank loans, unproductive state enterprises, a yawning wealth gap, official corruption – make China’s continued rise problematic. Since sustained, high economic growth underlies Friedberg’s case about China, we shall return to some of these factors. He predicts, nevertheless, that China’s continued, albeit slower, growth will make it the world’s leading economy by mid-century.

Friedberg labels the bipartisan U.S. strategy for China under four administrations “congagement,” that is, a blend of trade and diplomatic cooperation coupled with a balance of power in Asia. He questions the sustainability of “congagement” to confront a rising China. China’s strategy, he contends, is to develop its strength to the point where balancing seems hopeless and acquiescence to its wishes becomes the only sensible option for its smaller neighbors. Beijing has no intention of challenging Washington directly, but rather steadily to accrue regional preponderance. To this end it pursues enhancing its position in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); expanding its influence in Southeast/Central Asia; maintaining good relations with Russia; luring India away from America’s embrace; positioning itself as broker in eventual Korean unification; tightening the noose around Taiwan; and developing diplomatic/commercial ties with Japan. Perhaps only half jesting, in 2008 a Chinese admiral reportedly suggested to Admiral Timothy Keating, U.S. Pacific commander, drawing a line down the middle of the Pacific: “You guys can have the east part of the Pacific, Hawaii to the states. We’ll take the west part of the Pacific, from Hawaii to China.”

How does the balance of forces stand in the Sino-American rivalry? Friedberg provisionally judges that thus far China has been more successful in constraining the U.S. in Asia than the U.S. has in liberalizing China. This outcome is reversible, he adds, since it is contingent upon China’s continued, high economic growth. Yet, Friedberg says, this success is unclear. Although Beijing aims to weaken American alliances rather than construct competing ones, it has had scant success in doing so. The bedrock of the U.S. position in Asia is its ability to project hard power in a conventional defense of its allies. China’s military advances in anti-access denial capabilities, he believes, undercut this deterrent.

In conclusion, Friedberg offers an alternative strategy of “better balancing.” Above all, we must put our fiscal house in order by reducing our trade deficit and dependence on foreign capital. Chief among his other measures are two: closer cooperation with regional friends/allies and promoting pan-Asian and trans-Pacific institutions; and countering the PLA’s naval anti-access capabilities by dispersing our military assets and developing new systems of power projection. This is precisely the Obama administration’s policy.

Friedberg’s case for China as a serious geopolitical rival of the U.S. hinges on continued, high economic growth. The prospects for that are unpromising. Recently, Yu Bin, an economist at the State Council’s research center, confirmed a sharp slowdown in China’s booming economy. “We believe,” Yu said, “China is nearing the end of the period of high economic growth.”1 Citing slumping manufacturing, foreign investment, exports, and property prices, Yu forecast growth of 7-8 percent through 2017. “Clearly China has turned a corner,” says Patrick Chovanec of Tsinghua University in Beijing, “…the question is how disruptive of a downturn will it be.”2 Labor strikes in southern Guangdong province, China’s export hub, over falling exports and popular protests against government land seizures for business development provide hints of future instability.

Demography is destiny. China’s greying population will make the country old before it gets rich. The CCP’s one-child-per-family policy has lowered the fertility rate from 5.8 in the 1970s to 1.8 today, below the replacement rate of 2.1. Moreover, the widespread practice of sex-selective abortion has produced excess males. A shrinking working-age population will drive up labor costs, eroding one of China’s competitive advantages, and a large cohort of young, unattached males could produce social instability. At the same time, life expectancy has risen from 35 in 1949 to 73 today. By 2050 China’s elderly will increase from 100 million people over 60 today to 334 million, including 100 million over age 80. China lacks the means to care for this elderly nation.3

Not only is China’s population growing older, it is getting sicker. Yanzhong Huang describes how China’s health crisis threatens a dilapidated health-care system, the economy, and regime stability itself.4 Government spending on health care has decreased since the Maoist years, and the free-market reform era has worsened the situation. Huang estimates the cost of disease in China in 2005 at 13 percent of GDP. The country also faces massive environmental degradation.5 Chinese government economists estimate that environmental problems shave 10 percent from GDP.

Taken together, China’s economic, demographic, public health, and environmental trends will inevitably undermine its continued economic rise and, therewith, the scope of its geopolitical challenge to the United States. China’s rice bowl will not remain so full in the future, preventing it from becoming a truly global power.

Friedberg’s strategy of “better balancing,” centered on closer regional cooperation and countering China’s anti-access capability, is the strategy followed for the last two years by the Obama administration.6 Secretary of State Clinton has spelled out America’s “forward-deployed” diplomacy to deepen ties with allies, partners, and regional institutions (ASEAN and APEC). The “three D’s” of U.S, policy, she explained, are defense, diplomacy, and development, with an emphasis on an enlarged military presence across the region. During the administration’s November 2011 Asian trip, Clinton hailed the 21st century as “America’s Pacific Century” and stressed engagement with regional multilateral institutions and a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to create a pan-Pacific trading community. Former Defense Secretary Gates outlined the “forward deployment” of the U.S. military across the Pacific Rim to maintain maritime security and open access to international waterways. U.S. forces will become “more geographically distributed” and “operationally resilient,” extending from Northeast to Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean. To counter emerging (i.e., Chinese) anti-access technologies, the Navy and Air Force have developed a high-tech, joint war-fighting doctrine, “Air-Sea Battle,” to move and strike at great distances.

On his November 2011 Asian trip President Obama declared, “The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay.”7 Home to half the world’s economy, “no region in the world,” he stated, is more “vital” to U.S. prosperity and security, and reductions in U.S. defense spending would not affect his administration’s “top priority,” the Asia-Pacific. In Australia the President and Prime Minister Gillard announced a new defense pact to deploy Marines at Australian bases for joint/regional training and to increase USAF access to northern Australian bases. Unveiling the new Defense Strategic Guidance at the Pentagon in January 2012 the President signalled a strategic refocus to the Asia-Pacific, again pledging that defense budget cuts would not sacrifice that “critical region.”8

Friedberg rightly draws attention to China’s intentions and growing power, but he underestimates the severity of its domestic problems, some irreversible, that will inevitably deplete the country’s rice bowl and prevent it from becoming a global competitor to the U.S. Moreover, the author overemphasizes the ideological character of the conflict. If, as Friedberg grants, China’s behavior is not unique for a rising power and if a liberalized China would still pursue regional preeminence, it is difficult to see what practical difference its nominal ideology makes. China is no Soviet Union. China will not displace America’s global primacy; it presents, rather, a near-term contest for regional supremacy. This is a manageable challenge for the U.S., one made easier by the fact that Beijing’s belligerence in the South China Sea has aligned all of its neighbors that count, led by Vietnam, under U.S. leadership. That Vietnam is also a communist authoritarian regime matters not a whit. To borrow Deng Xiaoping’s maxim, it doesn’t matter whether the cat is white or black as long as it catches the mouse in the struggle for mastery in Asia.End.


1. Keith Richburg, “China’s Boom Ends as Investment, Exports, Manufacturing Fall,” Washington Post, 12/16/11; the housing bubble is noted by Robert Samuelson, “Is a Chinese Economic Slump on the Horizon?” Washington Post, 1/9/12.

2. Ibid. See also Gillian Wong, “Police Seal Off Southern Chinese Village, Cut Food Supplies Amid Protests Over Land Sales,” Washington Post, 12/15/11; and Keith Richburg, “Guangdong Protests Could Impact China’s Leadership Struggle,” Washington Post, 12/23/11.

3. John Pomfret, “A Long Wait at the Gate to Greatness,” Washington Post, 7/27/08; and Minxin Pei, “Looming Stagnation,” National Interest (Mar./April, 2009), 13-19.

4. Yanzhong Huang, “The Sick Man of Asia: China’s Health Crisis,” Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec., 2011), 119-136.

5. Pomfret, ibid.

6. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “America’s Engagement in the Asia-Pacific,” Honolulu, HI, 10/28/10; and “America’s Pacific Century,” Honolulu, HI, 11/10/11; also Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “Remarks at the International Institute for Strategic Studies,” Singapore, 6/4/11.

7. President Barack Obama, “Remarks at the APEC CEO Business Summit,” Honolulu, HI, 11/12/11; and “Remarks to the Australian Parliament,” Canberra, Australia, 11/17/11.

8. President Barack Obama, “Remarks on the Defense Strategic Review,” The Pentagon, 1/5/12.

John Coffey
John Coffey

John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.

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