The America Versus China Century

REVIEW: ‘The Contest of the Century’ by Geoff Dyer

Chinese honor guards stand to attention
AP

"Almost every important global issue will find itself colored by this rivalry. Yet it will not be the win-at-all costs ideological struggle of the Cold War. Instead, this will be an older, more fluid form of rivalry that is based on balance of power and building coalitions of support."

Geoff Dyer’s The Contest of the Century provides a 279-page intellectual tonic to the mantra of inevitable American decline and looming Chinese supremacy. Where other writers claim the Chinese dragon is omnipotent, Dyer insists that nothing is inevitable.

Still, this is no puff piece for America. Instead, Dyer carefully examines why China’s rise will pose significant challenges for America’s global influence.

The author begins by explaining how the 2008 financial crisis emboldened hawkish elements of the Chinese political establishment. Witnessing American vulnerability, they sensed the time had arrived to challenge American power. The author outlines the Chinese government’s use of a ‘humiliation mythology’ to sustain populist nationalism. From the 19th century Opium Wars with the British Empire, to the 20th century confrontations with Japan, Dyer explains how Chinese leaders manipulate history in order to mobilize popular support for their global ambitions. From this, we come to understand the centrality of pride to Chinese actions around the world.

This growing self-belief has coincided with major increases in Chinese military spending. The military leadership is more willing to challenge its civilian masters. The author considers China’s growing fleet of "warships, submarines and rapid small boats," designed to contest U.S. policy in the Pacific. But Dyer also notes that China’s rulers are cautious, aware their economic might was made possible by America’s security guarantee of international order.

This question of international order is a core theme of The Contest. For Dyer, it is in relationships with other nations that America and China will compete for supremacy in the 21st century. And China has a problem here.

The author shows how Chinese equivocation following North Korea’s 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy vessel provoked fury among South Koreans. More importantly, however, Dyer demonstrates that Chinese arrogance has alienated Pacific nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Referencing China’s extreme—indeed, often absurd—territorial claims and the hectoring tone of its relations with regional neighbors, Dyer offers a warning: "The harder China pushes, the more the region’s governments will band together into a loose coalition to deter a Chinese push for dominance."

Dyer describes the 2010 ASEAN summit at which the Chinese foreign minister told assembled delegates that "China is a big country and you are all small countries. And that is a fact." The minister followed up by telling his Vietnamese hosts (and fellow communists) that they were behaving like "capitalist sinners." This arrogant hostility has damaged China’s credibility as a prospective partner. Most indicative: U.S.-Vietnamese relations are strengthening each year.

Nevertheless, Dyer is equally keen to point out that Washington must not misread the politics of the Pacific. From Dyer’s perspective, there is little appetite for a Pacific NATO-like organization. As Dyer says, "Asians want the support of the American military so they can feel comfortable engaging with China, not so they can isolate it."

Dyer also examines China’s disdain for global humanitarianism. The author claims that as China’s international interests expand, it will have to adapt its present approach, for the sake of credibility as much as anything else.

Dyer’s consideration of the U.S.-China military dynamic is a key strength of his book. Highlighting the vulnerability of U.S. aircraft carriers against advanced Chinese missile systems, Dyer questions whether the Pentagon has thought carefully enough about its strategy to deal with China’s emergent military power. In specific terms, Dyer believes that China’s international energy and industry supply routes mean that, in the event of conflict, America should draw Chinese forces away from their mainland centers of power, defeating them at sea.

It is on the key theme of international economic primacy that Dyer is at his most convincing. Recognizing Chinese ambitions to weaken American influence in international commerce, Dyer emphasizes that economic power is not simply about the size of an economy. Rather, global economic power is derived from the governing framework that regulates and facilitates economic activity. For Dyer, this is why America retains global economic confidence and why the dollar remains the world’s favored reserve currency. China’s greatest challenge is its democratic deficit. These internal political difficulties will increase as poorer Chinese increasingly expect a greater share of their nation’s wealth.

Dyer reminds us that nothing can be taken for granted. He warns that America’s ballooning debt endangers American economic credibility. He also warns that American populism must evolve from its present antipathy towards Chinese investment: National security concerns should be paramount, but where Chinese businessmen want to build malls and create American jobs, the U.S. government should be receptive.

Ultimately, for Dyer, it is in a grand array of concerns that America’s 21st century contest with China now takes place. Against those who say the future belongs to the dragon, the author offers an alternative theory. As he puts it, "The U.S. holds its fate in its hands."