A test of will

When Admiral Timothy Keating, the head of America’s Pacific command, met a senior Chinese admiral in 2008, he heard a surprising offer. Keating reported that his unnamed counterpart had suggested drawing a line down the middle of the Pacific and added: “You guys can have the east part of the Pacific, Hawaii to the States. We’ll take the west part of the Pacific, from Hawaii to China.” It was a weak joke, perhaps, but one that touched on what is likely to be the most sensitive and important topic in international politics over the next 50 years. Will the US continue to be the dominant power in the Pacific and in east Asia – or will it be supplanted by China? And what role will be played by India, the country that many strategists assume will be the third superpower of the 21st century?

The public statements of American, Chinese and Indian political leaders – and even of the academic establishments in all three countries – tend to stress the necessity for great power co-operation in Asia and the Pacific. The economic and political benefits of working together are said to be too great to ignore. The dangers of allowing international rivalries to grow are too enormous to be contemplated.

But in all three countries, there are voluble dissenters who challenge the optimistic view that the future of the Pacific will be based around trade and co-operation, with a “win-win” logic governing relations between the major powers of the region. Aaron Friedberg, Yan Xuetong and Brahma Chellaney represent the hawkish pole of opinion in their respective nations, the US, China and India. All of them foresee a future of growing inter-state rivalry – and none of them discount the possibility of war. What is more, all three analysts argue that their governments should take a harder line to defend the national interest. Read together, their books present a sobering, sometimes alarming, picture of how international rivalries in the Asia-Pacific region may evolve.

Friedberg is a professor of politics and international relations based at Princeton University and once worked as an adviser to vice-president Dick Cheney in the Bush White House. His book is tough-minded and sometimes pessimistic but there is nothing hysterical about it. On the contrary, it is sober and well-informed. It is also a pleasure to read because of the lucidity of its writing and structure.

Friedberg’s first book was The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905 (1988), and he clearly believes that the US is in danger of suffering a similar fate to the UK. In A Contest for Supremacy, he argues that China represents the most significant strategic competitor America has faced for more than a century. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan “did not have the people, the resources or the industrial base to compete on an equal footing”, while the Soviet Union was “committed to disastrously inefficient policies”. By contrast, China’s size, economic success and authoritarian ideology combine to make it a formidable challenger to the US.

As things stand, Friedberg is not optimistic. “If current trends continue,” he writes, “we are on track to lose our geopolitical contest with China.” But “defeat is more likely to come with a whimper than a bang”. This is because China is pursuing an intelligent policy that seeks to accumulate power while avoiding confrontation with America. The US, on the other hand, is in financial trouble and wary of burdensome new commitments. If these trends persist, Friedberg predicts, “the military balance in the western Pacific is going to tilt sharply in China’s favour”. That, in turn, will mean that the US will feel compelled to “seek an accommodation with China and to acknowledge it as the preponderant regional power”. And, of course, the Asia-Pacific is not just one region among many. It is, increasingly, the centre of the world economy. Friedberg starts his book with a quotation from Lee Kuan Yew, the sage of Singapore, who argues: “If you do not hold your ground in the Pacific you cannot be a world leader.”

A Contest for Supremacy offers a careful and compelling examination of the US-Chinese relationship from a number of angles. There are chapters on the history of America’s foreign policy towards communist China, taking the story from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. There is a lengthy analysis of modern Chinese thinking on how to handle the US. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is on the balance of military forces in the Pacific. According to Friedberg, China’s military build-up is now clearly aimed at much more than a potential conflict over Taiwan – it is also intended to threaten America’s entire military position in the Pacific. The key development is the production of medium-range cruise and ballistic missiles that will soon give China “the option of hitting every major American and allied base in the region with warheads that could put craters in the middle of runways”.

America’s aircraft carriers are also vulnerable to a new generation of Chinese submarines and to anti-ship ballistic missiles that “could force the US Navy to pull its carriers and other surface combatants far back from China’s coasts, drastically reducing their effectiveness and fundamentally altering the balance of power in the western Pacific”. China is also developing anti-satellite weapons that threaten America’s edge in information technology. Indeed, the range and volume of cyber-attacks that already originate in China make it clear, according to Friedberg, that the first shots in any conflict between the US and China would be fired in cyberspace.

Cynical readers might observe that this kind of message will be welcome to American defence manufacturers. But Friedberg is an honest enough observer to also point to China’s own vulnerabilities. Economic growth means that China is increasingly dependent on oil and food from overseas, most of which has to be imported by sea. The world’s sea-lanes, including many beyond the range of China’s new missiles, are controlled by the US navy. As Friedberg points out: “In the event of a crisis or a war, the United States and its partners could seize or sink Chinese commercial vessels at critical chokepoints or on the high seas.” Unless a conflict ended very quickly, China would be vulnerable to a naval blockade.

“Hard power” calculations of this kind are rarely given a public airing, which is one of the reasons that Friedberg’s book is so interesting. The author warns against a “cascade of appeasement” that will hand dominance of the Pacific to China. But his conservative outlook means that he does not seriously consider an obvious counter-argument: that it might be rational for the US to accept a shift in power in the Pacific region towards a rising China. There will be many in the US who will argue that – in these post-Iraq, post-Lehman years – it would be the height of folly for Washington to seek to maintain hegemony in the Pacific by confronting Beijing.

Yan Xuetong is in some ways the mirror image of Aaron Friedberg – a conservative scholar who is willing openly to advocate a more confrontational foreign policy. As the director of the Institute for International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, where much of the current Chinese leadership was educated, Yan holds an influential position. But while Chinese officials still like to use emollient language about their country’s “peaceful rise”, Yan prefers to talk tough. A self-described nationalist, he has advocated a confrontational approach towards Taiwan and is prepared to discuss the idea that China might displace the US as the world’s dominant power.

In his new book (in reality, a collaboration with several colleagues), Yan presents a softer and more contemplative side. He stresses the need for China to develop moral authority (what many in the west would call “soft power”) if it is to stake a claim to global power. He also argues that China should seek to attract talented people from all over the world and should have much more open borders – an unusual stance for a nationalist.

Much of Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power is taken up with essays by Yan and his colleagues on the international political philosophy of ancient Chinese thinkers. Yan uses these essays to argue for his notion that relations between states are, or should be, inherently hierarchical. He believes America espouses a doctrine of the legal equality of nations that is essentially hypocritical; far better to be open about the realities of power – an idea that has its roots deep in the Chinese notion of their own country as the “Middle Kingdom”.

Two of the most interesting chapters in the book are an interview with Yan about his life and work and an introductory essay by Daniel Bell, a Canadian scholar of Confucianism who is also a professor at Tsinghua. Yan’s interview is a reminder of how profoundly his generation has been marked by living through the Cultural Revolution. As a teenager, he was plucked from an academic family in the city and forced to work as a labourer in the countryside for 12 years. He remarks, matter-of-factly: “During the Cultural Revolution we saw people being beaten to death, so you become somewhat immune to it.” These early experiences, Yan muses, have informed his tough-minded, “realist” approach to foreign policy. “Many people who went down to the countryside are realists with regard to life,” he suggests. “People who have not experienced hardship are more liable to adopt an optimistic attitude toward international politics.” As Bell puts it: “Chinese realists are idealists mugged by the surreal events of the Cultural Revolution.”

Given his self-declared “realism”, Yan’s stress on the need for China to present a humane and moral face to the rest of the world is interesting. What is missing from his analysis, however, is any real recognition of how Chinese behaviour can appear unreasonable or threatening to its neighbours. A reading of Brahma Chellaney’s latest work would provide some enlightenment on that score. Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies based in Delhi, has taken a consistently wary view of the implications of the rise of China. His new book is an exhaustive study of a narrow, but vital, aspect of the Asian security landscape: the growing struggle for water resources.

In Water: Asia’s New Battleground, Chellaney points out that the rise of an Asian middle class, combined with urbanisation and global warming, is putting an enormous strain on Asia’s supply of water. Taken together, China and India are “home to 37 per cent of the world’s population, but have to make do with 10.8 per cent of the world’s water”. India’s position is particularly vulnerable because so much of its water flows into the country from the Tibetan plateau that lies within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. As Chellaney points out, this is not an issue that concerns India alone: “The big issue in Asia ... is whether China will exploit its control of the Tibetan Plateau to increasingly siphon off for its own use the waters of the international rivers that are the lifeblood of the countries located in a contiguous arc from Vietnam to Afghanistan.” The giant dams that China is building on the international rivers flowing out of Tibet are a particular source of anxiety.

Chellaney laments what he regards as India’s folly in recognising Chinese sovereignty (as opposed to de facto control) over Tibet. This, he believes, has gravely damaged India’s ability to mount legal objections to China’s water projects. Under the circumstances, this rather hawkish commentator is left advocating “preventive diplomacy” as the best way of avoiding “water wars” in Asia.

It is striking that all three of these books end up arguing for enhanced diplomatic efforts as the best way of handling tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. Friedberg, Yan and Chellaney all have a keen sense of their own nations’ interests and a strong degree of scepticism about the motives of the other major powers in the region. All three are prepared to advocate more hawkish policies for their own nation. Yet, in the end, all stress the need to build diplomatic alliances and understandings. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator and author of ‘Zero-Sum World’ (Atlantic)

A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, by Aaron L Friedberg, Norton, RRP$27.95 (August), RRP£20 (October), 360 pages

Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, by Yan Xuetong, edited by Daniel Bell and Sun Zhe, translated by Edmund Ryden, Princeton University Press, RRP$29.95, RRP£20.95, 312 pages

Water: Asia’s New Battleground, by Brahma Chellaney, Georgetown University Press, RRP$29.95 (September), 400 pages

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