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  • A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia by Aaron L. Friedberg
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Aaron L. Friedberg. A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2011. 376 pp. Hardcover $27.95, ISBN 978-0-393-06828-3.

Aaron Friedberg is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. He is also the director of the Princeton research program in international security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. A Contest for Supremacy is the result of research begun in 2001 while he was “serving as the first occupant of the Henry Alfred Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress” (p. xi). The author relates that his book “took the better part of five years to research and write, but it has been gestating for a good deal longer than that” (p. xiii). Its subtitle, China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, situates the historical context from 1950, when China entered the Korea War and the beginning of the Cold War in Asia. The United States under President Truman established the policy of “containing” China and the spread of Communism. That policy was overturned in part by President Nixon and Kissinger in 1972 when the United States sought détente with China to counter what both countries perceived to be the more dangerous USSR. To the present under President Obama, engagement with the People’s Republic has been dominant. However, the United States has always had some form of containing China, especially as seen from the Chinese perspective of its sustained encirclement under U.S. hegemony. That the United States oscillates between seeing China as friend or foe is indicated by the different perspectives of President Clinton’s China as a “strategic partner” and President George W. Bush’s China as a [End Page 320] “strategic competitor” (p. 94). Friedberg prefers the less confrontational term (euphemism) of “balancing” the power between America and a rising China in favor of the status quo, which virtually means U.S. supremacy in Asia.

The last three decades have seen a mix of both engagement and balancing of power on the United States’ part towards China, what Freidberg refers to as “Congagement” (chapter 4). The heavier emphasis, however—on the part of business people seeking profit, academics and the media seeking assurance of access to China, and some wishful thinkers in government—has been largely on engagement. Many of these (the “Shanghai coalition”) believe that engaging China will inevitably lead it toward liberal democracy. Theirs has been part of the effort to tame China and to bring it into the present international order as a responsible stakeholder in the world community. This assumption, however noble, Friedberg insists, is naïve, lacks foresight, and is dangerous. Troughout the book, he underscores the reality that the People’s Republic of China is still an oppressive rule under the Communist Party, which is adept at staying in power and resisting to change.

Just as the United States has had a two-handed relationship of engagement and balancing with China, China also has its own two-handed ways of dealing with America since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1979. Freidberg sees China’s two-handed strategy as being friendly and cooperative, and giving the appearance of being a useful player in the international scene, while, on the other hand, strengthening itself quietly and undermining wherever possible, the America presence in Asia. China is trying its best to alleviate the fears of its neighbors and the world as to what they might think are China’s intentions. Even after asserting its rise to be peaceful, China replaced naming its “peaceful rise” with the less threatening “peaceful development” (p. 148). Friedberg understands that “for a rising power facing a still-strong rival, this would be a prudent path to follow” (p. 119). For the short history of Sino-American struggle in the last six decades, Friedberg (though not a sinologist or an area study specialist) was able to give a succinct history of the impetus...


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