Commentary Magazine

Facing China

(Ret.) Lieutenant General William E. Odom:

In “The Struggle for Mastery in Asia” [November 2000], Aaron L. Friedberg offers a very textured and thoughtful analysis of the challenges facing the United States in Asia. In his view, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will emerge as the major threat to American interests there and will become, implicitly, the focal point of U.S. strategy not only in the region but in the world. One might dismiss such a view as nostalgia for the cold war, a time when the enemy was clear, but I do not. Indeed, Mr. Friedberg’s treatment is an excellent starting point for thinking through U.S. strategy.

That said, his article puzzles me on several points. First, he fails to emphasize the huge advantages in power that the United States has in its competition with China. Second, he does not make Japan central to his analysis. In fact, “the struggle for mastery in Asia” is more likely to be a conflict between Japan and China. The question for the United States is which side to choose. It sided with China until 1949, with Japan thereafter, getting dramatically preferable results.

Mr. Friedberg believes that China can intimidate Japan, forcing it to be cooperative or at least neutral toward China. But given its enormous economic and technological advantages, Japan is more likely to rearm against China than to kowtow to it. Today, the gross domestic products (GDP) of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—all within the United States’s formal and informal alliance structure in Asia—amount to many times that of China. The PRC cannot catch up in three or four decades even if it manages, in Mr. Friedberg’s phrase, to “hang together.” When the U.S. GDP is added to the total, then the deck is surely stacked against China. Moreover, the outcome of the game will be decided not in South and South-east Asia, regions to which Mr. Friedberg devotes too much attention, but in Northeast Asia, where power is concentrated.

Certainly Taiwan is a serious issue, and Mr. Friedberg rightly sees it as a possible catalyst for a U.S.-China conflict. If the U.S. adopts a foreign policy that gives Japan, not China, first priority, then the U.S. alliance system in the region will be positioned to confront China with overwhelming military advantages in a fight over Taiwan. Chinese military modernization cannot offset this in the near, or even distant, future.

Mr. Friedberg worries that U.S. leadership simply will not be up to implementing an effective strategy because business interests will force it to make concessions to China. Here he sounds a proper warning, and I hope his piece is widely read in American corporate boardrooms, where an excessively benign view of China dominates.

Hudson Institute
Washington D.C.



Henry S. Rowen:

Aaron L. Friedberg sees three kinds of challenges coming from China: economic, military, and political. The first he overstates. Of course China dangles access to its growing market in front of other governments, but he fails to note that it is not unique in linking politics to trade. For China to dump its large dollar reserves, as he suggests it might do, would mean threatening a global system on which it relies. Moreover, China is likely to become a capital importer at a time when access to American technology is highly rated.

I believe that Mr. Friedberg is right about the military challenge that China poses, but some of his rhetoric misleads, as when he asserts that the U.S. is “preponderant” in Asia. It is true that we can apply air and naval power more widely than can others, but China is not an adversary like Iraq in 1990 or Serbia in 1999. And it is useful to recall that not so long ago we lost a war in Vietnam; twenty years before that we settled for a stalemate in Korea; and five years before that we gave up trying to prevent a Communist takeover in China. We can affect some things, notably on the oceanic fringe of Asia, but this does not make us “preponderant.”

An important aspect of the military challenge is timing. China’s technological capacity is advancing, but Beijing has other priorities and is not investing heavily in its military. It has far to go to realize most of the capabilities Mr. Friedberg postulates—except in the realm of missiles. There, China has long been able to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons and can easily offset our modest, proposed National Missile Defense system.

Mr. Friedberg also correctly observes that Chinese missile tests in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-96 heightened the perceived threat posed by missiles with nonnuclear warheads. Because of the short distances involved, China has many technical options, and it is unclear that Taiwan’s acquisition of Theater Missile Defense would be very effective against them. There may be an opening for arms control to deal with this problem. An agreement by Taiwan not to deploy missile defenses if the mainland restricts the number of missiles deployed against it might be backed up by an ability (with U.S. help) to put such defenses quickly in place.

As for the political challenge, Mr. Friedberg plausibly describes a Chinese divide-and-conquer strategy that relies on placing obstacles in the way of concerted action by its victims. Nonetheless, some of China’s neighbors have records of considerable robustness. Although, as Mr. Friedberg writes, a grand coalition against China is hard to imagine, to suggest that no defensive coalition among Asian nations could occur is an extreme assertion.

The big gap in Mr. Friedberg’s story is Chinese domestic politics. Despite various kinds of repression, personal liberties have greatly increased for many people, and political ones will increase as well. Every country with income levels of the kind that China is likely to attain within two decades, including several countries in the Chinese cultural sphere, is rated at least “partly free” by Freedom House in its annual report. Although the path on which a developed China becomes a democracy might be troubled, when (not if) it happens, the observation that democracies tend not to fight each other will become relevant. Mr. Friedberg says that it is “conceivable” that a richer China may not become more benign, but the odds suggest that it will be.

Here timing is again crucial. Much the best solution to the division across the Taiwan Strait is for China to become politically pluralistic enough for a democratic Taiwan to rejoin it willingly. That, in fact, is the official Taiwan position. A more democratic China is coming, probably within a few decades, and given that prospect a conflict there would be an enormous tragedy.

Stanford University
Palo Alto, California



Michael Swaine:

I agree with Aaron L. Friedberg that a truly powerful and aggressive China could present unprecedented difficulties for the United States, given its size, dynamism, and extensive involvement in the international polity and economy. Indeed, my colleague Ashley Tellis and I have recently written a book, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future, that makes precisely this point. But I do not agree with him that the existing competitive aspects of the Sino-American relationship now constitute a nascent military rivalry for continental dominance.

We might reach this point in the not-too-distant future if analysts continue to mix accounts (some accurate, some not) of Beijing’s current misbehavior and growing capabilities with hair-raising scenarios of future economic, military, and diplomatic subterfuge, as if the latter ineluctably follow from the former. This type of argumentation—which Mr. Friedberg employs repeatedly—could lead most ordinary observers to conclude, incorrectly, that an intense geostrategic rivalry is virtually inevitable, and to respond accordingly.

Though China would most likely desire to exercise preponderant power in Asia if the opportunity were to arise, it is by no means clear that it is pursuing this objective today. China’s current security strategy is above all cautious, pragmatic, and primarily focused on the near term. Although China might eventually choose (or the U.S. might push it into) a more assertive course, it also might not so choose, especially if it democratizes.

To his credit, Mr. Friedberg states that China might “mellow with the passage of time,” or be hampered by internal weakness, or that an assertive China might overplay its hand and provoke a response that could “block its ambitions.” But such factors are merely mentioned in passing, as if they do not merit serious consideration. In truth, it is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that China will not acquire the capabilities or develop the focused intent to struggle with America for mastery in Asia. This possibility—and the consequent need for a U.S. policy that is designed both to encourage a cooperative China and to cope with a more assertive one—is one that Mr. Friedberg should have more fully acknowledged and assessed.

Santa Monica, California



Victor D. Cha:

Although Aaron L. Friedberg makes strong arguments forecasting an open Sino-American competition in Asia, he says that such an outcome is only plausible, not inevitable. Yet one cannot help thinking that, in his eyes, the competition is indeed inevitable.

What sort of Chinese behavior, one wonders, might avert the path of competitive relations with Washington? A list would most likely include Beijing’s pursuit of full integration into the world economy; avid support of multilateral security dialogues; cultivation of more open relations with the rest of the Western world; help in curtailing Islamic fundamentalism; pressure on North Korea for peace on the Korean peninsula; the quest for better relations with India; and disavowal of any desire for regional or global hegemony. But would not these very measures be taken by Mr. Friedberg as “signposts” of a wider Chinese political strategy for winning friends and easing the U.S. out of the region?

Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.



Zalmay Khalilzad:

Aaron L. Friedberg believes that the current mix of cooperation and competition in the U.S. relationship with China is likely to evolve into a geopolitical competition for preeminence. His judgment is reasonable and cannot be dismissed by defense planners and strategists. But Mr. Friedberg’s framework should not be the only one informing U.S. policy.

For one thing, he implies that the current Chinese regime and/or its likely successor will pursue regional hegemony. This is by no means inevitable. Given some plausible domestic changes in China, relations with the U.S. could become less competitive or more cooperative than they are today.

For another thing, Mr. Friedberg assumes that China will remain a stable nation. But if China fragments as a result of a sharp decline in its economy or a failed military effort against Taiwan, it would be in less of a position to challenge U.S. interests. A China with internal factions competing for legitimacy might well become less engaged internationally.

Although Mr. Friedberg does not recommend a particular approach for dealing with China, his framework implies that we should already be pursuing a containment strategy, seeking to slow China’s economic and military rise. But that is not the only available course. The challenge before us is to use the current Chinese leadership’s desire for economic development to induce it to promote a democratic transformation, while simultaneously hedging against the possibility that China will push for regional hegemony.

In cooperation with our allies, the Bush administration should pursue a mixed strategy, continuing to engage China economically but also constraining the growth of Chinese military power by reaching agreements with Israel, Russia, and others that will limit the transfer to China of military equipment and related technologies.

If China chooses to cooperate with the current international system and becomes democratic, this mixed policy could evolve into mutual accommodation and partnership. If China becomes a hostile power bent on regional domination, the U.S. posture could turn into containment. The former is very much to be preferred; whether the latter can be avoided is primarily up to China.

Arlington, Virginia



Dov Zakheim:

The title of Aaron L. Friedberg’s essay, “The Struggle for Mastery in Asia,” conveys a far more alarmist tone than does his conclusion. Mr. Friedberg is fundamentally correct to assert that “in several important respects a U.S.-PRC strategic competition is already under way,” but whether, as he also asserts, “there is a good chance that it is only going to become more intense and open” is more problematical.

The nature of that competition, as Mr. Friedberg acknowledges, will very much depend on American behavior, a subject that he has deliberately not addressed. It will also depend on how far and how fast the Chinese economy can continue to grow. (If America’s economy slows down, and Japan’s does not revive, Chinese prospects will inevitably suffer as well.) And a great deal will also hinge on how Japan reacts to China’s policies and, to a lesser extent, on the strength of a now relatively enfeebled Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Unless one assumes that Japan will remain mired in its current doldrums for decades, an increasingly assertive China could easily help to reinvigorate the Japanese-American alliance and solidify the American alliance with Korea. It could also frighten the ASEAN countries, notably Vietnam, into seeking more open American protection, as well as encouraging India to develop further its still nascent nuclear capabilities. Finally, it may cause Moscow to consider improving its ties to Washington.

In other words, Chinese aggressiveness could well unite its competitors and, as with 19th-century Germany, bring about the very strategic nightmare it most seeks to avoid: encirclement by a concordat of powerful, suspicious neighbors, all of them at least friendly with, if not allied to, the United States.

Systems Planning Corporation
Arlington, Virginia



Rajan Menon:

With few exceptions, American Sinologists are proponents of engagement. Draw China into a web of political and economic transactions, they argue, and with time Beijing will acquire a stake in managing, rather than challenging, the prevailing order in Asia and elsewhere. Indeed, in a classic case of what the social psychologist Irving Janis termed “groupthink,” engagement has become the orthodoxy. The Chinese government, heir to a long and rich tradition of courting “barbarians,” has, with great finesse and subtlety, encouraged the preaching of this gospel in the West—above all in the United States.

Though our Sinologists will therefore not like what Aaron L. Friedberg has to say, his essay deserves to be read widely precisely because it is an act of heresy. That said, however, there are aspects of his analysis with which I disagree. He glosses over—indeed, dismisses—the possibility of instability in China and, ironically, is in sync with most China specialists in this respect. But it is a plausible scenario nevertheless. He also makes the future too rosy for China’s leaders in supposing that they will deploy an intricate, cunning “grand strategy” and that the other states of Asia will react in a manner that is malleable, obliging, and even pawn-like. Yet the balance-of-power process is never quite so kind to great powers on the move, and it is unlikely that China will be able to orchestrate events with precision.

Lehigh University
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania



Richard J. Ellings:

Aaron L. Friedberg believes that the U.S. position in Asia is vulnerable and concludes that we need to begin to acknowledge the threat of China. But by anticipating a threat before it fully emerges the U.S. might exacerbate that threat through preparations that appear alarming.

Much can happen in the years ahead. China’s fragile financial structure or corrupt political system could collapse, or its halting progress toward open markets could produce significant democratic reform. The competence of China’s leadership to govern the vast country is highly suspect. Instead of a military rivalry between the United States and China, one can also imagine, at one extreme, chaos in China, or, at another, war between China and its neighbors, or, at still another, regional security buttressed through cooperative arrangements among more or less democratic states in the Asian Pacific.

While Mr. Friedberg seems to believe that economic coercion might be effective in trying to isolate China, this approach seems circumscribed in today’s globally competitive environment. It would be better to devise a strategy that protects American interests while not rushing us into rivalry, that engages Chinese leaders and society, and encourages them to develop the rule of law and free markets while requiring China’s acceptance of the rules associated with its participation in the world economy.

All the same, Aaron Friedberg is to be commended for understanding the possibilities of strategic competition and conflict with China. No nation, and certainly not the United States as global leader, can afford to neglect the rise of a power that might pose the principal threat to its vital interests. In his extraordinarily valuable essay, Mr. Friedberg raises in very sophisticated fashion nothing less than the major challenge before U.S. strategists in the new century.

National Bureau of Asian Research
Seattle, Washington



Alan Dupont:

Aaron L. Friedberg argues persuasively that the tensions between the U.S. and China are almost certain to increase in the decades ahead. But whether events will unfold in quite the manner he suggests is a moot point.

In the economic sphere, there is little doubt that China will seek to become less reliant on the U.S. and to leverage its expanding economic power to political and strategic advantage. But this is neither surprising nor unduly worrisome. The U.S. has long used its economic clout to advance its national interests, mostly in benign ways. Why should China be any different? Its revolutionary period has long since faded into history, and its economic relationship with the U.S. is more likely to be characterized by mutual interdependence than by destabilizing competition.

It is true that over the next twenty or thirty years China will develop a significant power-projection capability, especially at sea, enabling it for the first time to challenge U.S. military preponderance on the Asian littoral and to complicate life for the U.S. Navy in the Taiwan Strait. But the U.S. is vastly superior to China militarily and will not stand idly by as the Middle Kingdom proceeds to acquire the accoutrements of a major military power. In fact, many informed strategic analysts believe that the military gap between the two potential rivals could widen rather than narrow in favor of the United States, and the U.S. may continue to hold sway in the ocean reaches of the western Pacific for longer than Mr. Friedberg suggests.

In an age of globalization, the relative geographical remoteness of the U.S. from Asia matters far less than it once did, and certainly does not confer on China a decisive political and diplomatic advantage. On the contrary, as Mr. Friedberg acknowledges, a rising China will encourage Asian states to support a countervailing U.S. influence. That is why it is incumbent on the new administration to demonstrate a renewed strategic, diplomatic, and economic commitment to the region. For if regional states perceive that U.S. influence is in decline, they will become increasingly susceptible to China’s blandishments, and the outcomes that Mr. Friedberg fears are more likely to come to pass.

Strategic and Defense Studies Center
Australian National University
Canberra, Australia



Michael O’Hanlon:

Some of Aaron L. Friedberg’s readers may be prone to interpret his sobering essay as a call to arms against a new looming foe. Motivated by that worry, I would like to offer several reasons why Americans need not acutely fear the Chinese or single-mindedly pursue deterrence ahead of continued engagement with China.

First, China’s ability to split the United States from its allies in East Asia, a specter Mr. Friedberg raises several times, is only remotely plausible. My distinct impression in dealing with policymakers and academics in Korea and Japan, for instance, is that China’s veiled threats tend to strengthen America’s Asian alliances rather than weaken them.

Second, although it is historically true that great powers tend to compete, there is reason to hope that future relationships among the world’s major countries will be more constructive and constrained than they have been in the past. The end of the era of colonialism has reduced the likelihood of future great-power competition over control of territory. The tremendous destructiveness of the world wars and the existence of nuclear weapons have sobered all attentive policymakers to the risks of major armed conflict. These historical lessons do not, alas, preclude the possibility of conflict over Taiwan, but they do tend to reduce the odds that China and the United States will embark on a more general geostrategic competition throughout Asia.

Third, China’s military, while improving, is not nearly as good as it would have to be to challenge the United States in East Asia. Taiwan could handily defeat an attempted PRC invasion on its own for the foreseeable future. While it might need American help to break a Chinese naval blockade of the island, U.S. forces could handle such a mission confidently and comfortably at their current size. Although PRC military capabilities will improve over time, there is a strong argument to be made that China’s political system is liberalizing much faster than its armed forces are improving, and that such liberalization will dramatically reduce the odds of conflict in the years ahead.

These observations, if true, do not obviate the importance of Mr. Friedberg’s warning. But they should serve to remind Americans to think at least as hard about how to engage China as about how to deter, constrain, or defeat it.

Brookings Institution
Washington, D.C.



Paul S. Giarra:

Aaron L. Friedberg’s signal service has been to clarify the outlines of a Sino-American competition that is difficult to win and harder to avoid. Hardliners appear to have won out in Beijing. Since 1949, the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait has been defined by the ability of the United States to dominate, and therefore deter, any Chinese attack against Taiwan, thus keeping the two antagonists apart, but new People’s Liberation Army capabilities and doctrines are clearly designed to overcome this American-imposed stand-off. According to press reports, Chinese military planners now routinely envision fighting their American counterparts, and the Pentagon has begun to return the favor.

This preliminary indication of the state of strategic bilateral relations may not be definitive, and at this stage is by no means predictive, but in military terms the Sino-American competition will certainly present significant challenges to the United States, broadly parallel to those of the cold war. This does not mean simply picking up where we left off with the Soviet Union. Strategic circumstances have changed, China is very different from the Soviet Union—and the United States has greatly diminished prospects of leading a grand coalition against it. Bases and industrial infrastructure have been reduced along with force structure, in many cases more so, and alliances have relaxed their vigilant tension.

Japan will play a major role in how relations develop between China and the United States, by no means necessarily for the better. The slow but steady military normalization of Japan; differing American and Japanese interests and perspectives; Japan’s perennial insecurity; the virtually complete American reliance upon tenuous bases in Japan; and the looming potential for conflict over Taiwan present challenges for which the U.S.-Japan alliance is ill-prepared. Proponents of playing the Japan card in our competition with China seriously misread Tokyo’s ability or propensity to support American interests, strategies, and actions vis-à-vis China and elsewhere. To the contrary, without careful recalibration of the alliance, Japan could become not only an impediment but a liability.

Science Applications International
McLean, Virginia



James R. Lilley:

At last, a thoughtful scholar has described the realities of China with cold-blooded objectivity. Aaron L. Friedberg provides a persuasive answer to apologists who repeat ad nauseam that considering China a threat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as well as to those who cannot mention Taiwan without attaching a pejorative suffix, as in the Taiwan “question,” or “problem,” or “dilemma,” or even “albatross.” These slick word games have contaminated American thinking about China. I hope Mr. Friedberg has put them to rest, although I frankly doubt it.

The evidence is overwhelming that China perceives the world as Mr. Friedberg describes it. China seeks to neutralize America’s ability to project power by exploiting the vulnerability of our aircraft-carriers to missile attack, by undermining U.S. reliance on satellites for intelligence and communications, and by negating the ability of stealth bombers to avoid radar. China has also outspokenly acted to dismember the U.S. alliance structure by effectively playing on other nations’ concerns about U.S. arrogance and “hegemonism.” Using the leverage of a growing and powerful economy, China alternately practices the art of seducing and undercutting its principal rival, Japan.

What Mr. Friedberg’s article misses is the powerful dynamic of Taiwanese trade and investment in China as a potential restraint on the mainland’s more militant objectives. Sustaining economic growth, which is essential, especially in the tumultuous years ahead as China joins the World Trade Organization, depends more and more on Taiwan.

The volatility of Chinese domestic conditions, which Mr. Friedberg understands clearly, could well determine China’s future approach to the world. He is correct that the business of China today is increasingly becoming business. I would only add that war can be bad for business.

American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.



S. Enders Wimbush:

Aaron L. Friedberg is one of America’s leading strategic thinkers, and his unsentimental assessment of the emerging China is a welcome rebuttal to some of the wishful thinking that has taken root in official U.S. foreign-policy circles. His evaluation of the coming—indeed, existing—competition with China is reminiscent of George F. Kennan’s assessments more than a half-century ago of the emerging challenge from the Soviet Union. Kennan’s intuitive sense of Soviet strategic culture and the Soviet leadership’s longterm objectives ultimately came to be reflected in a winning U.S. strategy. Mr. Friedberg’s sense of the emerging China deserves no less attention.

Mr. Friedberg bases his analysis of “the struggle for mastery in Asia” on three key assumptions that seem safe, although it would not be difficult to imagine that at least two of them could be false. Like Mr. Friedberg, I cannot conceive of a China that will forgo its ambitions of becoming a global power. I can, however, imagine a much more brittle China that could fracture along its prominent ethnic, economic, regional, environmental, and political fault-lines. Nevertheless, a brittle China—weak, chaotic and dangerously unpredictable, but still able to employ substantial military capabilities—could prove to be as formidable a competitor as a strong China.

The assumption that the U.S. will stay the course in Asia might also be wrong. At least, I doubt that we can simply assert this to be true with much confidence. The past decade or so of irresolute American military engagement in many parts of the world—Iraq, Somalia, the Balkans—raises strong doubts about the willingness of U.S. policymakers to enter any international competition that demands more than bombing from a safe altitude or firing cruise missiles at illusive terrorists. These doubts are likely to become more pronounced as the weapons of our opponents become more sophisticated and their understanding of our reluctance to take casualties leads them to create new and more deadly strategies.

Even if we assume that America will continue to have the will to project power in Asia over the next few decades, the question remains of where it will project that power from. The obvious answer is from Japan and Korea, but this “handful of local friends and allies,” as Mr. Friedberg calls them, is already small, and persistent internal and external forces could buffet them in ways that will work to make it smaller still. We should be wary of assuming that Japan and Korea will always be there for us and that their strategic objectives will remain in concert with our own. Japan is at a turning point already as it tries to find some manageable synthesis of its own strategic ambitions and limitations. And if Korea unifies, it is difficult to imagine that U.S. troops will remain there in the face of almost certain opposition from large parts of the enlarged Korean population and from China.

The new administration needs to get serious about naming its opponents in Asia. Mr. Friedberg deserves our thanks for making that seem so obvious.

Science Applications International
McLean, Virginia



Aaron L. Friedberg

I am grateful for the many thoughtful responses to my essay. Rather than attempting to answer each letter in detail, I would like to address a number of recurrent themes.



China will change.

Several of my correspondents (including Messrs. Rowen, Swaine, Khalilzad, Menon, Ellings, O’Hanlon, and Wimbush) note that China could undergo fundamental domestic political change in the years ahead, perhaps becoming fragmented, chaotic, and weak or, alternatively, transforming itself into a functioning, stable democracy. In the first instance, China’s leaders might be deprived of the ability to challenge the United States; in the second, they would presumably lack the inclination to do so.

I do not dismiss the possibility of serious unrest in China—although, for purposes of discussion, I did explicitly assume that the country would remain essentially intact over the next several decades. But what internal weakness might imply for external behavior is far from clear. As Enders Wimbush suggests, an unstable and unpredictable China could still pose serious problems for the United States. And there can be little doubt that a “failed” Chinese state would present its neighbors with enormous challenges: it could swamp them with refugees, cheap weapons, and pollutants, even if it no longer threatened to dominate them.

And what of a mellower, more democratic China?1 This is an outcome devoutly to be wished, of course, but one that does not seem likely to come quickly or without considerable upheaval. Regimes in transition from strict authoritarianism to greater political openness have historically been prone to bouts of aggressive nationalism. As China’s elites compete more openly for power among themselves, and as they feel increasingly compelled to justify their continuing collective rule to the Chinese people, they may resort to antiforeign sentiment and even to external adventures as a means of mobilizing domestic support. Finally, it should be noted that, in its early stages, even a more fully democratic China could prove prickly, assertive, and difficult to deal with. Anyone who doubts this should consider the early history of the United States.



The balance of power will balance.

William E. Odom, Henry S. Rowen, Dov Zakheim, Rajan Menon, and Michael O’Hanlon all suggest that other Asian countries will join with the United States in order to offset China’s rising power.

This is a strong possibility, and indeed there is evidence that it is already occurring. Continued movement in this direction cannot, however, be taken entirely for granted. The balance of power is not an automatic equilibrating mechanism. I agree with Alan Dupont that the willingness of other countries to cast in their lot with us will depend on their own estimation of our power, steadiness, and seriousness of purpose. How we act, and how well we counter Chinese efforts to raise doubts about our role, will be critical.

As both Paul S. Giarra and Mr. Wimbush suggest, moreover, the solidity and permanence of our most important regional alliances cannot simply be assumed. Japan is in the midst of wrenching economic, social, and political changes that could well have a dramatic impact on its foreign and defense policies. North and South Korea are likely again to become one country, and perhaps sooner rather than later. A reunified Korea could choose to stay aligned with the United States, but it might also shift toward a more neutral stance or even “tilt” toward China. The new Bush administration faces few tasks more important than preserving close ties to our two key democratic allies in Northeast Asia.



The Chinese military will continue to lag behind.

It is true that, in almost every respect, China’s armed forces are today greatly inferior to those of the United States. But it would be dangerously complacent to assume that this will continue to be the case indefinitely. Although Beijing may have “other priorities,” as Mr. Rowen asserts, it does not follow that it “is not investing heavily in its military.” The exact scale of the expenditure may be a subject of debate, but there is little question that the PRC is devoting considerable resources to the various missions that I described in my article: building up theater ballistic missiles with which to intimidate its neighbors, strengthening its ability to strike directly at the United States, and acquiring the elements of an “anti-access” capability that could complicate and raise the costs of any American attempt to project power into the Western Pacific.

China may be decades away from building a force that could challenge the United States at any point on the globe, if it even wishes to do so. But it may not be nearly so far from building one that would enable it to pose a serious threat to U.S. interests and forces in East Asia. Taiwan is the most obvious sore spot and danger point here.

Whatever the objective balance of military power, there is also the ever-present danger of miscalculation. Instead of resting on our laurels, we should be closely tracking the Chinese military buildup and, equally important, gaining a better understanding of how China’s leaders assess the prospects for a successful use of force. If we fail to attend adequately to these tasks we risk some very unpleasant surprises.



China’s economic diplomacy is neither new nor worrisome.

Messrs. Rowen and Dupont both note that China is hardly unique in its efforts to use economic instruments for achieving strategic objectives. This is true, but it is also largely beside the point. The use of such instruments may not be an entirely new thing under the sun, but it is a new thing for China. The question is toward what ends, and how effectively, China will employ its newfound leverage.

As I suggested in my article, a fast-growing China may try to use its increasing weight to constrict America’s influence in Asia, while at the same time reducing its own vulnerability to American economic pressures. Whether or not the Chinese will be able to carry this off remains to be seen. But the larger point is worth repeating: dealing with a strategic competitor that has significant economic cards to play will present new challenges to the United States.

James R. Lilley notes that its economic links with Taiwan may have a restraining influence on mainland China. This is an important point and one that is often lost in abstract, general discussions of the allegedly pacifying effects of global economic interdependence. But the situation prevailing across the Taiwan Strait also underlines the plausibility of international relationships that mix a measure of economic cooperation with a strong strain of strategic competition. This too is something foreign to our recent experience.

During the cold war, we became accustomed to the idea that the world could be divided cleanly into two camps: friends who were both our military allies and our principal trading partners, and foes with whom we competed militarily and traded hardly at all. Mixed relations, however, are far closer to the historical norm. To take one troubling example: prior to the outbreak of the World War I, Britain and Germany were among each other’s most important trading partners. Dealing effectively with China will require us to broaden our conceptual categories, instead of trying, as we have been doing for the better part of the last decade, to deny the PRC’s competitive behavior in order to squeeze it into the “friendly” box.



Rivalry is not inevitable, but our actions could help make it so.

Is an intense, open struggle for mastery in Asia inevitable? No, and I said so as clearly as I could at the beginning and again at the end of my essay. Although I believe that, especially in the military realm (and, in a more muted way, in the diplomatic and economic domains) a competition of sorts is already under way, I do not think it is somehow destined to accelerate or to blossom in all the ways that I speculate it could.

Might we, through our behavior, make an intense rivalry more likely? To one degree or another, Victor D. Cha, Zalmay Khalilzad, Dov Zakheim, Richard J. Ellings, and Michael O’Hanlon all worry about the possibility of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Treat China as an enemy, says the conventional wisdom, and it will become one.

There is something to this line of reasoning, though not, in my view, as much as is usually claimed. For one thing, there may be powerful internal forces—political, ideological, and bureaucratic—propelling China toward a more confrontational stance, regardless of how inoffensive and accommodating we try to be. China may become an enemy even if we redouble our efforts to treat it as a friend.

Also deserving closer scrutiny is the notion that only by taking a soft line can we discourage aggressive external behavior and promote desirable domestic change. The history of our dealings with the Soviet Union during the latter stages of the cold war would certainly suggest otherwise (although the two situations differ in many respects). To the current Chinese leadership, we need to make clear the futility of stepped-up competition (to say nothing of overt aggression), while at the same time making plain to the Chinese people the benefits of continuing economic and political liberalization.

It is for these reasons that I favor a mixed approach along the lines laid out by Mr. Khalilzad: continued trade and investment—albeit with renewed steps to slow China’s efforts to acquire certain key technologies—combined with serious, sustained, and unchecked efforts to strengthen our alliances, improve our military capabilities, and maintain a balance of power in Asia that is favorable to our interests. Engagement, yes; but from a position of strength.

Is it possible, finally, that merely by talking and perhaps even by thinking about a full-blown Sino-American rivalry we may increase the probability of its actually coming to pass? This is the clear implication of Michael Swaine’s letter. Mr. Swaine worries that “ordinary observers,” unable to distinguish between descriptions of present reality and “hair-raising scenarios” of the future, will conclude that “an intense geostrategic rivalry is virtually inevitable, and . . . respond accordingly.”

While I am flattered by the thought that my article could somehow change the course of history, I very much doubt that it, or a hundred more like it, will have any such effect. On the other hand, I am disturbed by the suggestion that we ought to avoid discussing unpleasant possibilities for fear that someone (presumably our political representatives and “ordinary” fellow citizens) might get the wrong idea. Acknowledging real dangers is a necessary first step to avoiding them, as well as to preparing to cope with them if they should nevertheless come to pass. Refusing or neglecting to do so, it seems to me, is a far more likely formula for disaster.



1 For an extended discussion of this theme, see Arthur Waldron’s article, “A Free and Democratic China?,” in the November 2000 COMMENTARY, as well as the correspondence on it beginning on page 12 of this issue—Ed.


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