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Rising Dragon, Crouching Eagle

by The Editors

The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China—and How America Can Win, by Geoff Dyer (Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95)

Recent books on China and America tend to wind up in one of two camps.

One is epitomized by Zachary Karabell’s 2009 Superfusion, which stressed how the interests of the world’s two biggest economies will increasingly overlap and draw the two nations together. We’re fated to be friends in a post-nationalist world, supporters of this argument, including Fareed Zakaria, aver — so don’t spoil it by bothering the Chinese about human rights or by worrying about their growing military might.

The other camp, by contrast, comes with such titles as “America’s Coming War with China” and “Death by China.” It foresees a much darker future, with an arrogant and authoritarian China itching for a head-on collision with America, the one superpower able to block its global ambitions, either because it believes it will win or because — to borrow from Gordon Chang’s 2001 book The Coming Collapse of China — it wants to distract from its own intractable corruption, ethnic divisions, and growing economic and environmental woes.  

Geoff Dyer, the Financial Times’ leading commentator on China, aims to find a middle ground, and succeeds brilliantly. Yes, China and America are locked in a rivalry that’s only going to intensify in the next decade; and no, we are not fated to be friends. But pace Gordon Chang, China isn’t collapsing any time soon, either — and neither is the United States. Dyer sees in this superpower rivalry not a clash between freedom and tyranny, or between ideologies left over from the Cold War. He paints a vivid picture of a clash driven by old-fashioned geopolitics from the era of Bismarck, Teddy Roosevelt, and Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great exponent of sea power as a nation’s path to dominance — and contemporary China’s favorite Western thinker.

In this contest the United States “will still hold many of the best cards,” he argues — and thereby somewhat undercuts his thesis. Still, Dyer concludes convincingly, we can guide this rivalry to an end where the two countries respect each other’s security interests and don’t wreck the modern global system. We’re on the verge not of superfusion exactly, but not of the Next Big One, either.

The real problem is that American policymakers haven’t caught up with the new Chinese self-perception. In the years following Mao’s death, China’s approach to the rest of the world, especially the United States, was summed up by Premier Deng Xiaoping’s phrase “Tao guang yang hui” — “Hide the brightness and nourish obscurity.” Two phenomenal decades of economic growth, however, have convinced the Chinese that it’s time to shine, and they now demand the respect that goes with being the world’s second-biggest economy.

Yet as Dyer skillfully shows, while growth has brought unprecedented prosperity and power, it has also exposed the Middle Kingdom to a new kind of vulnerability that comes with being part of a global system. China’s economy now feeds on copper from Africa, iron ore from Brazil, and oil from Saudi Arabia, of which 80 percent passes through the Malacca Straits — which also happen to be patrolled by U.S. warships. Meanwhile, the 2008 financial crisis shocked the Chinese leadership into realizing how much they relied on a global financial system over which they had little direct control.

One response has been Beijing’s recent effort to replace the dollar with the yuan as the world’s reserve currency. The other — much more worrying and destabilizing — has been China’s enormous investment in a military, especially a navy, it believes it needs to secure its far-flung interests, which means displacing the United States’ traditional dominance in the Pacific region.

The result has been that, as Dengism has faded, the People’s Liberation Army has enjoyed a new prominence and prestige in Chinese society and politics. Puffed up by annual double-digit increases in the military budget, its generals and admirals now more resemble the Prussian officer corps of Wilhelmine Germany than they do Mao’s revolutionary vanguard. Dyer forcefully points out that they increasingly feel free to take the aggressive lead on foreign affairs, with politicians willy-nilly going along (for example, current premier Xi Jinping owes his rise to being a well-known “military hugger,” while his wife is a major general).

But that new aggressiveness in such places as the South and East China Seas has also made new enemies and spawned a loose coalition of lesser powers — Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines — that want to limit China’s dominance, and that look to the United States to help them do it.

Dyer sees here an opportunity for American leadership, but also a risk. America’s goal in Asia should be the same as it always has been: to prevent a single power from dominating the rest, whether it was imperial Japan in the 20th century or Xi Jinping’s China in the 21st. But Dyer also correctly points out that the interests of China’s neighbors are too diverse for building a NATO-style coalition of the kind we used to contain the Soviet Union’s expansion in Europe; and the fact that their own economies are as intertwined with China’s as ours leaves them cold to any aggressive economic warfare or sanctions.

Instead, he stresses a “lead from behind” approach, to “fashion a loose, informal web of collaboration across the region” from behind the diplomatic curtain, which will gently but firmly encourage China to play ball rather than be left out.

Yet if “lead from behind” has proven a dismal failure in the Middle East — not to mention now in Ukraine — why expect it to succeed in Asia? Here Dyer fails to realize that one of the reasons China feels free to behave aggressively in places such as the South China Sea, or to filch our corporate and defense secrets by cyberhacking, is precisely that it’s never had a forceful, determined response from the United States. The practical alternative to “China-bashing” or angry brinksmanship, both of which Dyer rightly deplores, has been a strange passivity going back to Tiananmen Square, fed by superfusion enthusiasts during the Clinton and Bush years, especially in the corporate-business community.

Obama’s passivity on everything related to foreign policy has only made it worse. His “pivot to the Pacific” strategy is a standing joke in Asian capitals, while his administration has done lasting damage to the two pillars of American strength in the region and around the world: our economy and our military. No wonder the Chinese privately count us as down and out, and see the 2008 financial crisis as proof that their hour has come.

Yet Dyer remains hopeful that we can come back before the final bell. Why? Because the American system has a powerful capacity for self-renewal, he says at the end. Our current energy boom, our universities’ ability to attract and train the brightest minds, our “unique ability to commercialize innovations” — all spell a way out of our current malaise and a resurgence of American power, and with it a strong partner for others in Asia to lean on.

Yet what are those virtues but the fruits of a system of private enterprise and freedom — and what are China’s strengths, except those that spring from the regime’s willingness to foster the same freedoms, albeit in a sharply limited way, in the economy and in science and technology? In short, the taproot of our current rivalry turns out to be ideological after all. And just as liberty ultimately prevailed over tyranny in the contest with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, it may provide the key to understanding who prevails in this contest as well.

– Mr. Herman, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is the author, most recently, of The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.

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