Magazine article The Washington Monthly

A Middle Course for the Middle Kingdom?

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

A Middle Course for the Middle Kingdom?

Article excerpt

The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China--and How America Can Win

by Geoff Dyer Knopf, 304 pp.


Competition with China really isn't a zero-sum game. So why does it feel that way?

The pursuit of power among nations," President Barack Obama said in his first major speech on China, "must no longer be seen as a zero-sum game." In the four and a half years since, leaders in both Washington and Beijing have stuck to that message with conspicuous discipline. Chinese President Hu Jintao kicked off his 2011 state visit on the South Lawn of the White House with a paean to "win-win progress through cooperation." Last summer, Hu's successor, Xi Jinping, stood next to Obama in Rancho Mirage, California, and called for "a new model of major country relationship based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation for the benefit of the Chinese and American peoples."

In 2012, a Dartmouth political scientist named Benjamin Valentino tried to figure out what, exactly, the American people think about this "new model of major country relationship." As part of a broader study of public opinion on U.S. foreign policy, he had pollsters describe two scenarios for the coming twenty years. In the first, both the United States and China experience strong economic growth: "The average American's income doubles, but China grows faster than the United States and China's economy becomes much larger than America's." In the second, both economies hardly grow at all: "The average American's income increases by only 10 percent, but the U.S. economy remains much larger than China's." By a factor of more than 2 to 1, Valentino's respondents chose the latter: they would rather have historically low growth--and its attendant unemployment, poverty, and general hardship--than live in a world dominated by China.

Most Americans, in other words, have not been persuaded by the sunny proclamations of their government. To them, we are already in a zero-sum game with China. And they would rather lose-lose than win-win.

In The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China--and How America Can Win, Geoff Dyer, a correspondent for the Financial Times who has done tours in both Washington and Beijing, identifies a similar dynamic on the other side of the Pacific. China's top leaders may recognize that their most important tasks, and possibly their very survival, require a stable and reasonably cooperative relationship with the United States. But a proud popular clamor often drowns out calls for prudence.

A growing and increasingly globalized middle class, raised on tales of the "century of humiliation" at the hands of the West, has embraced "raucous internet nationalism." Hawkish military figures decry criticism of China's human rights record as evidence of an elaborate foreign plot to dismember the country. Anxious and ambitious politicians turn to jingoism to fill the vacuum left by discarded Marxist dogma, their "domestic insecurity ... feeding, not inhibiting, the desire to stand tall overseas." And all of this, Dyer argues, can drive policy in unsettling ways. He considers the recent instance of China's "new assertiveness" that has most worried both U.S. policymakers and the rest of Asia: Beijing's pursuit of territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. "It is tempting," he writes, "to think of this activity as a calculated, long-term plan to assert control gradually over the region," but the real explanation may in fact be "a simmering pressure from below to take more action."

Dyer starts out his analysis of the U.S.-China relationship with the fairly conventional claim that "the growing competition ... will be the single most important factor in world politics in the coming decades." Yet neither a Cold War nor a shooting war, in his view, is an inevitable outgrowth of this competition. Nor is a booming and bellicose China destined to supersede the United States on the global stage. …

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