On Political Books

January/ February 2014 A Middle Course for the Middle Kingdom?

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

By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan


The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China—and How America Can Win
by Geoff Dyer
Knopf, 304 pp.

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. If Washington can get a few basic policies right, at home and abroad, “it will still hold many of the best cards in the twenty-first century.”

But as Dyer gets deeper into his survey—chatty in tone, scattershot in approach, acute in insight—a dissonance starts to emerge. Beneath his optimism lies a disheartening tangle of dangers and complications: the simmering pressure of nationalism, the exigencies of military planning and alliances, the vexations of economic reform and renewal, the vagaries of domestic politics. Ultimately, his case for optimism hinges on the wisdom, skill, and consistency of leaders and citizens on both sides of the Pacific. Dyer has spent enough time in the two countries to know how dicey a bet that is.

Around the time when participants in Benjamin Valentino’s poll were expressing their dread of falling behind, China was marking a major milestone in its economic rise. In 2012, it surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest trading nation. Just twenty-five years after accounting for less than 1 percent of global trade, it was now the top commercial partner of 124 countries. If it kept growing at a similar rate, economists projected, it would unseat the United States as the world’s largest economy in roughly a decade.

Dyer dispenses quickly with the standard lavish recitation of China’s economic record in the three decades since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms began: the historically unprecedented growth, the mighty new factories, the gleaming airport terminals, the cities springing up from farmland. To him, the key question is how and whether the Chinese Communist Party can sustain that success without undermining its own power—or, as Timothy Garton Ash has put it, “how long the fantastic centaur of Leninist capitalism will endure.” November’s Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee made clear just how carefully and intently Chinese leaders are approaching that challenge, deploying a mix of incremental economic reforms, cautious expansions of personal liberties, and stringent authoritarian political controls.

This attempt at perestroika-without-glasnost—“left on politics, right on economy,” as one slogan has it—is an experiment with enormously high stakes. Can further economic modernization proceed without risky political opening? Will a richer society insist on more choice and accountability, on everything from pollution to land rights to corruption? Will authoritarian capitalism eventually collapse in on itself? Chinese officials are well aware of how most political scientists and economists would answer these questions. “The more developed and prosperous the country becomes, the more insecure and threatened they feel,” Susan Shirk, a scholar and former State Department official, has written. “From the Communist Party leaders’ perch in Beijing, Chinese society looks like a cauldron boiling over with unrest.”

Similar tensions run through China’s global economic ambitions. Dyer considers the designs of some Chinese hawks to strip the U.S. dollar of its “exorbitant privilege” as the world’s reserve currency. “For the renminbi to eclipse the dollar,” he notes, the country would “have to tear up its economic model” and “the Communist party would lose a vital element of its current political control over the economy.” Those global ambitions, accordingly, boil down to a stark choice for China: “It can keep its particular model of state capitalism. Or it can have a global reserve currency. But it cannot have both.”

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2012, is currently a fellow of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He is writing a book about George Marshall.

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