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

Yet it will be similarly hard to avoid “provocation,” or what looks like it when viewed from Beijing. Washington has little choice but to hedge against the possibility of future Chinese misbehavior. But the hedging steps it takes—the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle doctrine for war in the western reaches of the Pacific, reinforced alliances in Asia, investments in cyberwarfare capabilities—feed the suspicion of those who believe that the United States is out to keep China down: the classic vicious spiral of the security dilemma. Even steps the United States has not taken can feed that suspicion. In one “fit of self-induced paranoia,” in the words of an Obama adviser, angry Chinese officials insisted that Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize was given on the orders of the U.S. State Department.

When policymakers in Beijing look around, they see American allies, troops, and ships, backed by military spending still many times higher than their own. They see outside powers with an interest in internal territorial issues that cover nearly half of their country. They see Western companies in control of most of the globe’s key resources. They see some of the world’s longest land borders shared by wary neighbors with whom they have gone to war in recent decades. They see plenty of reasons, from a coming demographic cliff and a rickety banking system to increasingly intolerable air and water pollution, to worry about the future of the economic success that is at the root of their power. And they look across the Pacific and see a United States with certain enduring relative advantages—of geography, of demographics, of resources, even of latent economic potential. Americans may be most anxious about Chinese strength, but that sense of vulnerability could come to trouble us even more.

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China—and How America Can Win

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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