A Contest for Supremacy – China & America in & for Asia

The World is a fascinating place right now. Europe is undergoing an existential crisis in a fiscal sense. Either it will come together to form a cohesive, fiscally integrated core or it will again break up into pieces dominated by their own sub-cultures. Regardless of their financial future, the geopolitical troubles of Europe hopefully belong to a distant past.

Asia, on the other hand, seems ripe for the reemergence of traditional great power rivalries. Today, China struts over Asia as a future hegemon. The Deng Xiaoping dictum of “Hide Our Capabilities and Bide Our Time” is being replaced by the wishes of an increasingly aggressive People’s Liberation Army. While China seems to be winning,  the United States of America, the traditional power in Asia, appears to be fading.

Anyone interested in understanding the unfolding conflict between China & America should begin with the book “A Contest for Supremacy – China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia“. Five years of research have gone into this book, notes author Aaron L. Friedberg, now Professor of Politics & International Affairs at Princeton University.

In our review, we focus on a critical aspect of the China-America contest. In the author’s own words:

  • In a world in which states must still ultimately look to their own defenses, “hard power” – the capacity to coerce, deter, defend, and destroy – remains the essential currency of international politics.

Therefore, we focus on The Balance of Power between China and America, Chapter 9 of Friedberg’s book.

“Power Projection” Versus “Anti-Access”

This simple title sums up the doctrines of the two players. American homeland is far away from Asia. So America’s standing in Asia depends on projecting its massive military power onto this far away continent. This power projection by America is what constraints China’s ambitions to dominate Asia. This is why China’s immediate goal is to build up enough military might to deny America easy access into China’s neighborhood. They have succeeded to a great extent, notes Friedberg:

  • Today, the balance between the two sides’ “situational awareness” is much closer to being equal, and in the future, it could begin to tilt in Beijing’s favor. China now has its own constellation of reconnaissance communication, and navigational satellites that permit it to target fixed facilities like airbases, ports, command bunkers, fuel depots, weapon storage sites, and communications facilities anywhere in East Asia.
  • In addition to being able to spot distant targets, China increasingly has the ability to disable or destroy them.
  • The ability of the United States to sustain its forces in East Asia is heavily dependent on a relative handful of regional bases, most of them on the territory of its allies.
  • The range, accuracy, and the number of medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles in China’s arsenal will soon give it the option of hitting every major American and allied base in the region with warheads that could put craters in the middle of runways, smash through concrete aircraft shelters, and shut down ports, power plants, and communication networks.
  • With or without local bases, the tip of the spear of America’s unique ability to project power is its navy and, its particular, its aircraft carriers.
  • …the PLAN (PLA Navy) has experimented with a variety of different ship-killing weapons and modes of attack. Quieter submarines with …hypersonic cruise missiles…. Russian-built destroyers…. new type of small, high-speed, stealthy patrol boats..with their wave-piercing catamaran hulls and carry long-range supersonic antiship, cruise missiles.
  • Most novel and in the long run most worrisome are the land-based antiship ballistic missiles that Beijing is now set to deploy.
  • A recent RAND Corporation study concludes , for example, that “…..the air war for Taiwan could essentially be over before much of the Blue air forces have even fired a shot.”
  • Another finds that with as few as 34 ballistic missiles armed with submunitions, the PLA will soon be able to “damage, destroy or strand 75% or aircraft based at Kadena [on Okinawa].’


USA vs. Russia and USA vs. China – The Shrinking Technology Gap

The great victory of the last 50 years was the complete defeat of the Soviet Union by America. Since then, America has been the unquestioned sole power in the world. It is not understood however, that the fall of Soviet Union may have accelerated the race between China & America:

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union and the warming of relations with Russia freed Chinese military planners from their costly preoccupation with large-scale land warfare…permitted it to make rapid progress in altering the balance of power in the Western Pacific.

There is no doubt that China has learned the lessons of America’s victory over the Soviet Union:

  • Whereas Russia (and Maoist China) sought isolation from global markets, since the late 1970s the PRC has embraced them with unparalleled ardor. Unlike the Soviet Union, which purchased very little from outside its bloc and had little to offer in return, China has both the desire and the ability to trade. Its massive exports of consumer goods have fueled economic growth and enabled it to purchase sophisticated weapons from advanced suppliers like Russia and Israel, which it  has sought to “reverse engineer” in order eventually to be able to build its own.”
  • Vital though imports have undoubtedly been, it is foreign direct investments that has served as the “decisive catalyst” propelling China up the h
    igh-tech ladder.
  • …writes James Kynge, “it is globalization rather than R&D that is the main catalyst behind China’s reemergence as a technology power.”
  • Trade, investment, legitimate exchange, and espionage will help China to continue closing the technological gap with the United States.


The “Long Haul”

The contest with China is the biggest challenge America has faced in a long time.

  • It has been more than a century since the United States faced a strategic competitor with a GDP equal to its own. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany did not come close, and, as we now know, even at its peak the Soviet Union’s total output was probably only a third to a quarter that of its capitalist rival.
  • If current trends hold, by the middle of this century, if not sooner, China will finally displace the United States from its position atop the global GDP tables.

But this race between China and America is a marathon and not a sprint. As time goes by, the race might get easier for America. As Friedberg writes:

  • In fact, depending on a variety of other factors, the United States may actually find it easier to prosecute a strategic rivalry with China several decades hence than it does today.
  • At least for the moment, China is clearly better situated to sustain the momentum of its buildup than the United States is to redirect and accelerate its own military programs.
  • Fast-forward another 25 years, however, and the picture could look remarkably different.

Friedberg provides several reasons for this belief. The first is a narrowing of America’s focus:

  • By that point the United States will probably have withdrawn most of its forces remaining in Europe,… pulled back considerably from the Middle East and Southwest Asia as well.
  • … a far greater fraction of the total American military and intelligence effort will be devoted to the Western Pacific, and to the area that extends from the Strait of Hormuz, in the Persian Gulf, through the Indian Ocean to the Strait of Malacca.
  • Meanwhile, closer to home, its [China’s] security environment may not be as favorable as it is today. A souring relationship with Russia, India, or Vietnam, a messy end to North Korea, growing turmoil in Central Asia, and increasing concern over securing cross-border energy supplies could necessitate an expansion of PLA ground forces. Trouble in Xinjiang, Tibet, and major urban centers across the nation may lead to further investments in the People’s Armed Police.
  • …China’s armed forces will also be increasing in cost…..the prices of both manpower and new weapons will rise making additional investments of military power more expensive than those that came before.
  • By 2030 the capacity of the two contestants to carry forward their rivalry may be moving in opposite directions.

A second reason is much more structural and perhaps the decisive one.

  • Thanks to its unusually high birth rates and (assuming this continues) its traditional openness to immigration, America’s workforce will continue to grow, its dependency ratio will remain relatively low, and it will have a better chance of sustaining GDP growth at or near its historic averages.
  • China will still have to deal with shifts in its population profile of unprecedented speed and magnitude.
  • In part due to the “one child policy”, this flow [supply of young workers] is going to shrink dramatically over the course of the next several decades. As it does, the average age of China’s population, the absolute size of its elderly cohort, and the ratio of non-working-age citizens will increase.
  • The rapid aging of China’s population will probably cause its rate of economic growth to fall sooner and faster than would otherwise have been the case. Just as the scope of its national interests is expanding, and the cost of its armed forces are growing, the resources available to fund them will start to become scarcer.
  • Demographers note that China faces the challenge of “getting old before it gets rich“.

So after all this, what is Professor Friedberg’s verdict on China becoming a long-term  global power rivaling America?

  • It may also turn out that China will have gotten old, and less dynamic, before it has had the chance to consolidate its position as a truly global power.


Read This Book

The above is the wisdom from just one of the eleven chapters of the book A Contest for Supremacy by Professor Aaron Friedberg. If you like what we summarized, if you would like to learn more, read this book. If you have the remotest interest in understanding the factors in what will be the defining contest of the next 50 years, get this book. The Kindle edition costs less than a sandwich in midtown Manhattan.

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