What We’re Reading
'A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia,' by Aaron L. Friedberg
As many throughout the United States, China, and the international community at large seek to understand the ever-changing relationship between the world’s two largest economies, the work ‘A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia,’ by Aaron L. Friedberg provides greater clarity to the situation through a well-researched, positive examination of the future between the United States and China. Friedberg, the Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and the former deputy assistant for national-security affairs to the Vice President of the United States, outlines multiple reasons why a closer relationship between these two countries is possible. From the potential for cooperation on transnational issues–such as climate change and nuclear proliferation–to their economic interdependence, Friedberg illustrates the ways in which China and the United States are critically intertwined. In contrast, he also identifies two key factors–the two nations’ conflicting national interests as well as their differing ideological and political characteristics–that drive the relationship toward competition and tense rivalry.
Though the book was written in 2011, Friedberg’s analysis remains important today as the dialogue between China and the United States has shifted from cooperative tones toward competitive threats. Friedberg focuses his analysis specifically on the current state of affairs in the Pacific Ocean, and how control of the seas is a key geopolitical pressure point in the relationship between the two countries. His words ring true in light of tense naval engagements over the past years: “If we permit an illiberal China to displace us as the preponderant player in this most vital region, we will face grave dangers to our interests and our values throughout the world.” This understanding of the political power that control of the Pacific Ocean entails is even more essential today as the Trump administration engages in a hard-line approach toward Beijing while simultaneously preaching the tenets of retrenchment and “America First,” a combination that would not only leave America’s Asian allies without a broader security guarantee, but also with an aggravated and powerful China.
The professor exhibits strong emotion in his conclusion, dismissing those in the United States policy-making community who advocated engaging with a rising China rather than containing it. Friedberg advocates the strategy of investing in American security technology and products–including “long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, submerged or low-observable ‘arsenal ships’ loaded with precision weapons, long-range conventional ballistic missiles and perhaps a new intercontinental-range stealthy manned bomber”instead.Friedberg feels that this physical foundation must be combined with a more assertive approach to China,, with the latter serving as a key pillar of President Trump’s current foreign policy stance. But Friedberg argues that the U.S. must take an additional step, promoting the creation of a broader security framework that would effectively give the U.S. a formal space to manage security relations in the Pacific. As President Trump has illustrated in his words and actions, the U.S., under his leadership, will remain hesitant to advance existing security relationships, leaving the likelihood of creating new ones incredibly low.
Reading the work A Contest for Supremacy today allows us to reflect on the alternattive paths the two countries could have taken and forces us to consider whether or not conflict is the inevitable result These questions do not have easy answers but drive the dicussions across the Pacific Ocean as the international community explores what the future of the region looks like.