Chinese naval soldiers on China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning
Members of China’s navy © Reuters

The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China, by Geoff Dyer, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Knopf, RRP$26.95, 320 pages

Writing a current affairs book means spending an anxious few weeks between your last chance to amend proofs and the day copies ship. What if something happens that makes your analysis seem obsolete? For journalist Geoff Dyer, who has covered China and the US as well as Brazil for this paper, the danger was unusually great. His book focuses on China, that most dynamic of countries, and its often fast-changing relationship with the US. And while mercifully free of bold predictions about China imminently imploding or ruling the planet, it has a forward-looking cast.

What a relief for Dyer (and his publishers) that no dramatic development occurred to undermine or even seriously challenge his core arguments. The first readers of The Contest of the Century, and perhaps many later ones, too, can enjoy and learn from this engagingly written tour d’horizon of important issues without being troubled by any sense of material being dated.

Dyer opens with a clear statement of his thesis, a straightforward one with good prospects for having a long shelf life. China’s rise will continue. Its great power ambitions will keep growing. Competition with the US will get more acute and multifaceted: China, Dyer writes, “has started to make the crucial shift from a government that accepts the existing rules to one that seeks to shape the world according to its own national interests”.

But a “Beijing Consensus” won’t necessarily replace the Washington one. How the struggle for global leadership turns out will hinge in part on how well American leaders do at getting their own house in order. It will also depend on Beijing’s ability to deal with pressing internal issues such as endemic corruption, and whether it comes to appreciate that paranoid policies aimed at strictly controlling everything from what journalists can write to what artists can create undermines its goal of making China widely admired internationally.

This opening position strikes me as eminently sensible, as does Dyer’s closing assertion that, great as the challenges facing Barack Obama are, those before Xi Jinping are even more daunting. There is much that is sensible as well in the three sections of the book that come in between, which are devoted, in turn, to military, political and economic issues. Such virtues should not be taken for granted: plenty of specialist writings handle the topics Dyer addresses in a solid and informed manner, but books for general audiences about which this can be said are, though much needed, in short supply.

It would do Dyer a disservice, though, to suggest that The Contest’s only value lies in serving as a corrective to more sensationalistic accounts. He is a fluent writer who knows how to make the most of lively set pieces. One of the best finds him on the Chinese tropical island of Hainan, describing a cove that has a massive naval base at one end while, at the other, “Miss World” pageants are held and well-heeled Russian tourists dine on sushi – as Dyer puts it, “globalization China and great power China vying for a spot on the beach.”

A good test of a book like this is its usefulness in illuminating a news story that breaks after its publication. How well does The Contest work, for example, as a guide to understanding the fallout from Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s surprise December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, widely perceived in China and South Korea as a symbol of Japanese militarism? It passes with flying colours. Dyer’s chapter on “China’s Brittle Nationalism” sheds light not only on the virulence of online and official condemnations of Abe’s action, but also on the efforts Beijing has been making to keep crowds from taking to the streets. In part because of its own past “patriotic education” drives, paroxysms of nationalism are now increasingly difficult to control.

The Yasukuni story also has a bearing on my one criticism of The Contest: Dyer keeps such a tight focus on policy choices made in Beijing and Washington that the book can feel like a tale of two cities. Yet state actors who are neither Chinese nor American, from a Gorbachev in 1989 to an Abe or a Kim now, can have a big effect on the dynamics that interest him.

Non-state actors, too, can alter the equation. Consider the case of 2001. In April that year, an American surveillance plane collided with a smaller Chinese jet, killing the pilot of the latter and being forced to make an emergency landing on the very island where Miss World pageants are now held. A writer could easily have put the finishing touches to a book in May predicting that the year’s biggest diplomatic story would be heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington. In between, of course, came 9/11, which gave the kaleidoscope of geopolitical alignments such a firm shake that no patterns, including US-China ones, looked quite the same in the autumn as they had in the spring.


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author of ‘China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know’ (OUP)

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