As something of a real-life Jack Ryan, professor Aaron Friedberg plies his intellectual trade teaching politics and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, following a term as deputy-assistant for National Security Affairs in the George W. Bush administration. The research behind A Contest for Supremacy grew out of his abiding interest in the rise of Asia and its implications for America.
Friedberg recently spoke to us about current events in Asia, and the struggle for influence there between China and the United States.
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How did you come to want to explore the Sino-American struggle for global dominance?
In contrast to most of Europe, where nationalist passions, territorial disputes and arms races seemed to be fast dwindling into historical memory, Asia appeared ripe for the re-emergence of traditional great power rivalries. By the mid-1990s, a trans-Pacific contest for power and influence between a still-dominant America and a fast-growing China began to seem an increasingly likely prospect.
Why does it matter which side holds sway in the course of world affairs?
Before it can hope to compete with the United States on a global scale, China must first establish itself as the foremost power in its own region.
If an authoritarian China is able to dominate Asia, America's prosperity, security and hopes of promoting the further spread of freedom will be seriously impaired. Our businesses could find their access to the markets, high-technology products and natural resources of some of the world’s most dynamic economies constricted by trade arrangements designed to favor their Chinese counterparts.
While it is unlikely to engage in outright military conquest, an unchecked China would be well situated to enforce claims over resources and territory that are currently disputed by its weaker neighbors. Secure in its own region, Beijing would also be able to more easily project military power to defend or advance its interests in other parts of the world, including the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
What issues were most important for you to address here?
My primary aim in writing this book was to draw attention to what I see as the intensifying strategic rivalry between the United States and China. While this competition has been under way for the better part of two decades, many people have been reluctant to acknowledge its existence. Unless we understand the forces that are shaping our relationship with China and the goals and strategies that its present regime appears to be pursuing, we are not going to be able to respond in a way that both defends our interests and keeps the peace.
How do you see the relationship among China, Japan and the Koreas developing over the next few years?
The relations between China and its Northeast Asian neighbors will be mixed. On one hand, China has emerged as the most important trading partner for most of the nations in the region. On the other, its growing wealth and power are making many of them nervous and inclining them to cooperate even more closely with the United States. This is certainly true of Japan and South Korea. The main question now is whether we will have the resources and the resolve to respond adequately to their concerns.
What do you see as the attitude of the Chinese people toward the United States and her allies?
China is a big and diverse country, and its people hold a wide range of views on virtually every topic. My impression is that while many people in China respect the United States for its accomplishments they have also come to see it as an overbearing, moralizing nation that seeks to impose its views and its way of life on the rest of the world. The Chinese government certainly does whatever it can to encourage these sentiments.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions Americans hold about China, and what about those perceptions would you like to see changed through the reading of this book?
There is an increasingly widespread belief that China is somehow 10 feet tall and that it will inevitably rule the world. China shows no real signs of political liberalization and its growing wealth and power are making it increasingly capable of pursuing policies that challenge American objectives in Asia and around the world.
At the same time, the country has many weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities. Together with its friends and allies, the United States should be able to deter aggression, defend its interests and maintain a favorable balance of power, even as it waits for China to undergo an eventual process of domestic political reform.
In conclusion, you advocate for communication and cooperation throughout the Pan-Asian region. What’s the best outcome of this move toward strategic alliances?
It is extremely important for the United States to try to preserve the best possible relationship with China, engaging it through trade and diplomacy as we have been doing for over 40 years now. At the same time, as China continues to grow, I believe that we are going to have to work harder to maintain a favorable balance of power in Asia. We can't do this alone but will have to cooperate even more closely with our friends and allies in the region, especially democracies like South Korea, Japan, Australia and India, with whom we share values as well as interests.
What sorts of conclusions would you hope readers draw from their experience with A Contest For Supremacy?
Whether or not they agree with my conclusions, I hope that readers will come away with a deeper understanding of the forces that are shaping our mixed, complex relationship with China, a more realistic appreciation of the strategic challenge that China presents and clearer view of the options available for dealing with it in the years ahead.