Aaron Friedberg, former deputy assistant for national security affairs and director of policy planning for Vice President Dick Cheney, is author of a new book, “A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.” The topic and book could not e more timely, especially since Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, was just named co-chair of the Asia-Pacific working group for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign.
What Friedberg thinks about China and the steps he recommends for thwarting China’s increasingly aggressive behavior could well become U.S. policy beginning in 2012. I interviewed him via e-mail a few days ago.
Why did you write the book?
The book grows out of my experiences both as an academic and as an observer/participant in the policymaking process. (I have been a professor at Princeton since 1987 and have spent much of the last two decades thinking and writing about the geopolitics of Asia. In 2000-01 I served as a member of an outside panel evaluating the CIA’s assessments of China and in 2003-05 I was a deputy assistant for national security affairs in the Office of the Vice President.) I have been concerned for over a decade that the United States government, and the country as a whole, have not been sufficiently focused on the challenge to our interests and security posed by China’s increasing wealth and power. Even if they disagree with parts of my diagnosis or the prescriptions I offer, I hope that readers will come away from my book with a greater awareness of the seriousness, complexity, and urgency of this challenge.
Is China seeking to displace the U.S. as the top economic and military power in the world?
Although they are careful not to say so, I believe that China’s present leaders seek eventually to displace the United States as the preponderant power in East Asia. The Chinese Communist Party believes that the United States and its allies aim to encircle China, to constrict its growth and to transform it eventually into a liberal democracy. They regard the U.S. presence in Asia, its network of bases, alliances, and forward deployed military forces, as an unnatural, temporary intrusion and a potential threat. With the United States gone, China should be able to resume its traditional position as the dominant regional power.
Thanks largely to its very rapid economic growth, in the last twenty years China has begun to acquire interests and to exert influence on a truly global scale. Chinese strategists and analysts have only recently begun to talk openly about the possibility that, by the middle of this century, they may begin to draw close to the United States in terms of overall wealth and power. While I do not believe that many are at this point contemplating replacing the U.S. as the world’s number one power, some are starting to think about how they may be able to reshape the current international system in ways that better serve China’s interests.
What mistakes have we made in dealing with China?
Aside from being slow to recognize the potential implications for our security of China’s growing military power, I think American policymakers have tended to overestimate the extent to which Beijing’s interests and policies converge with our own on a variety of important issues. On nonproliferation, for example, the Bush administration had high hopes that China would help pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons programs, and the Obama administration seems to have similar expectations regarding Iran. But, certainly in the first case, and I am afraid in the second as well, Beijing has other interests (a friendly buffer state along its border, access to energy) that trump its concerns about proliferation. China dangles the prospect of cooperation as a way of exerting influence over U.S. policy toward it, strengthening the hand of those in our system who argue that we need to be careful not to do anything that might offend or provoke Beijing.
How should we handle human rights abuses?
Our leaders need to continue to be forthright in expressing public disapproval of human rights abuses and in encouraging the leaders of other democratic nations to do the same. Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton’s suggestion on her first visit to Beijing that the U.S. might ease off on its criticism in order to concentrate on other issues was a major misstep in my view. It is important that China’s leaders not be encouraged in the belief that they can use their newfound clout to silence those who speak out against their mistreatment of their own people.
In addition to public diplomacy, the U.S. government should continue to support the development of software that may make it easier for citizens of countries with repressive regimes to access the Internet without fear of surveillance. American companies that actively assist the Chinese government in violating the human rights of its citizens should be subject to public shaming and shareholder pressure if not legal sanctions. The efforts of nongovernmental organizations, universities and other private institutions to promote the emergence of a stronger civil society in China should also be encouraged.
This is an issue where we should be making common cause with other countries, including those in Europe, whose corporate and government computer networks have been subject to repeated attacks that originate in China. The U.S. government has been investing considerable resources in defensive measures, but a complete cybersecurity strategy is going to have to include an offensive component.
How would the sorts of defense cuts contemplated by the “trigger” in the debt-ceiling agreement impact our relationship with China?
The defense cuts already announced are substantial and those that could be coming could be twice as large. These reductions come at a moment when China’s twenty-year military buildup is beginning to bear some very dangerous fruit. China has been putting together the pieces of what Pentagon planners call an “anti-access” strategy, using large numbers of conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles, plus submarines and aircraft to target the relative handful of ports and airfields on which the U.S. military depends to sustain its presence in the Western Pacific, as well as the aircraft carriers that are a major instrument of American power projection.
In the years ahead the United States and its allies are going to have to do more to blunt China’s growing capabilities. Impending budget cuts will make it harder to maintain a favorable military balance in the Western Pacific.
What alliances should we be attending to in the region as a counterweight to China?
The diplomatic aspect of our strategy for maintaining a balance with China should consist of three elements: First, we need to continue working to bolster our relationships with traditional treaty allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia. These efforts should have an economic as well as a military component. The recent U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement is an example of a measure that can further strengthen existing ties. Second, we need to attend to our “quasi-alliance” relationships with countries like India, Singapore, Indonesia and perhaps Vietnam that share our concerns about China’s rising power and increasing assertiveness. Finally, we should be quietly working to encourage strategic dialogue and defense cooperation among all of these countries. China’s leaders should know that if they behave aggressively they will face resistance from a coalition of Asian nations.
You have joined the Romney campaign as an adviser. Why did you make that decision? What can you tell us about how Romney thinks about foreign policy?
I joined the campaign because I believe that Governor Romney is the best-qualified candidate, with the right mix of experience, intellect and instincts to make an outstanding president. Among other things, I think Governor Romney is the candidate most likely to implement policies that will restore the economic vitality that is the key to our national power and world role.