Reading Aaron Friedberg in Southeast Asia
Reading Aaron Friedberg’s fascinating, informative, sometimes questionable, ultimately unsatisfying argument about China’s strategic mindset and the necessary US response, A Contest for Supremacy, many issues suggest themselves. It’s a great read, elegantly written, well-argued, highly worth one’s time even if the case doesn’t eventually persuade. His insistence on trying to see the world through the eyes of Chinese strategists—rather than seeing Chinese strategy through the eyes of an American NSC advisor with a year of Mandarin and an MA in Asian Studies—is refreshing, even if one doesn’t fully agree with the Chinese worldview he sketches out.
Three notions occur on reading Friedberg, all related in a way to the character of Chinese power. We talk a great deal about “the rise of China” as if it were some obelisk heaving up from the ocean, objective and generic. In fact Chinese power is just that—Chinese power, as distinct from American power as American is distinct from Canadian and Canadian is distinct from … most everyone, really.
Point One: Nationalistic Paranoia Doesn’t Play Amid Globalized Self-Satisfaction. Friedberg mentions at one point some Chinese writers who thirst after a muscular China emerging “at the center of a new regional order in which all the other nations of East Asia will have no choice but to accept its leadership.”(181) He depicts Chinese strategy as aggressive, rejectionist of US influence in Asia, determined to seize the mantle as regional hegemon. He describes, as have many others, China’s sense of grievance and humiliation after centuries of western condescension and repression.
But China is not rising into a regional playpen of weak and retiring targets of its belligerence. It is arriving onto a world stage of increasingly fractious, self-important countries with no patience for any country to replace the United States as the global (or regional) bully. After the Cold War, the United Stated faced a world of largely collapsed adversaries, many begging help and trying to become “like America,” and docile allies. Entering this new era, China faces nothing of the sort. It is ringed with the likes of Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines—countries with no patience for Beijing’s adventurism and a growing willingness to collaborate to send messages that China had better respect the by-now well-established norms of the post-war world.
The more China fights this reality by descending into fist-waving bouts of nationalistic paranoia, the more the region will pull back, find alternative trade partners, re-arm, and generally spark counterproductive results for a Chinese political leadership that (let’s not forget) needs these trade ties as badly for its own domestic legitimacy as anyone else needs them for economic progress.
So one tentative conclusion is that the nature of the supposed Chinese threat, when placed into not some generic context but the real context of current Asian and global geopolitics, looks much less fearsome, because the more fearsome it becomes the more self-defeating it becomes. It’s a sort of very specific version of the Security Dilemma with Chinese Characteristics.
Point Two: The Much-Feared Bandwagoning Never Happens. A much-discussed risk of any “perceived US weakness or withdrawal” from Asia is claimed to be bandwagoning toward China. Absent a strong America, countries will scurry under Beijing’s shadow, we are warned by the defenders of primacy.
Yet there seems precious little evidence of this. Friedberg gives one example: Thailand (207), but Thailand can afford to “bend with the wind” because it has no real disputes with China and large economic stakes. It’s just not in Beijing’s cross-hairs. It’s not so much an example of a country crawling under China’s wing as one quietly maintaining good relations because the alternative would be stupid.
Countries with more to fear, and lose—like South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Australia—have taken a much tougher stance of late. Their conviction seems clear: They must send the message that China cannot bully them. There seems no reason why this would be less true regardless of perturbations in US credibility. In fact the more decisive variable, the literature on alliances would suggest, might be perceived threat: If China plays nice, neighbors might cozy up for the special trade benefits; we saw some of this dynamic in South Korea a few years back. A warm, benefit-offering Beijing is a much bigger danger to US alliances in Asia than a belligerent one; no regional country will agree to become a vassal state under threat.
Until we see actual examples of Chinese threats causing states to distance themselves from the US and align themselves as Chinese quasi-vassals, there are many reasons to reject the argument that we have to overcompensate with US power to prevent such a result. Especially, as argued here before, because overcompensation risks provoking Chinese paranoia.
Point Three: China Ain’t Got No Friends. Reading a paper on Chinese strategic culture and comparing it to some of the analysis in Friedberg, a point that has been made by many recurs: China doesn’t have allies. There are reasons for this—its form of government, for example—but a leading one is its strategic culture, which is inward-looking and essentially untrustworthy. These are not characteristics one would describe as useful in a globalized information age. They may also be changing among China’s younger leaders, but that is to be seen. In any event, the point is, in terms of sustaining existing alliances, building new relationships (and Friedberg refers interestingly to “quasi-alliance” partnerships, 103-4), participating energetically in the state/non-state issue networks that are coming to define the response to many challenges—the United States has vast advantages.
They will be important, because Washington will need to alter the relative contribution to security in coming years. Regional states will need to bear more of the burden. But they will be able to, because the nature of Chinese power—specifically its sort of power, at this moment in time—poses a far less dramatic threat than many commentators, including Aaron Friedberg, would have us believe. Because, again, the same basic argument made by George Kennan in 1946 holds, in modified form, today: We should be confident, and patient, because if we can put our house in order, our system, our values, our alliances, and our norms will prevail. Unless we screw it up–which, to be truthful, we are in the process of doing–our form of power has inherent advantages. Recognizing this, and avoiding overreactions to short-term perceived threats, will be critical to keeping our China policy in perspective.