A Sino-American “Contest for Supremacy”

Aaron L. Friedberg writes that the U.S.-China power balance is a cause for concern.

Aaron L. Friedberg

In A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (Norton, $27.95), Aaron L. Friedberg ’78, Ph.D. ’86, dissects the present and future of Sino-American relations, stating that “despite several reasons a closer relationship between the two economic powers is possible, two main factors—a growing clash of interests and deep ideological and political differences--will prove more decisive and will make the relationship more tense and competitive,” according to a review by the New York Times Book Review.

In the waning months of the Clinton administration, reports Foreign Policy, Friedberg, an international-relations professor at Princeton, was hired to review the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of China, an experience that left him troubled about the future relationship between the two global superpowers. By contrast, the “China hands” he knew in and out of the U.S. government “seemed to believe that a Sino-American rivalry was either highly unlikely, too terrifying to contemplate, or too dangerous to discuss. Whatever the reason, it was not something that serious people spoke about in polite company.” In an op-ed published in the New York Times earlier this month, Friedberg argued that America’s financial troubles are placing the country on a path of growing strategic risk in Asia: “With Democrats eager to protect social spending and Republicans anxious to avoid tax hikes, and both saying the national debt must be brought under control, we can expect sustained efforts to slash the defense budget,” he wrote, continuing: “China is secretive about its intentions, and American strategists have had to focus on other concerns since 9/11. Still, the dimensions, direction, and likely implications of China’s buildup have become increasingly clear.”

Times book reviewer Martin Jacques—a Guardian columnist and author of When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World (Penguin)—agrees that Friedberg “is certainly right that a situation characterized by the emergence of a rising power and the decline of an existing hegemon has generally been a recipe for instability and conflict.” But he faults the book for failing to expound on China’s incredible economic performance, a factor “that has been driving and will continue to drive the change in the relationship.” Seeking to counter China’s rise in its own region by the deployment of hard power, Jacques writes, could “inevitably lead to a more tense and dangerous international environment, quite possibly a new cold war.”

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