In the end, Friedberg’s book is not entirely persuasive on his essential points: that China’s goal is to supplant the United States in Asia, that it is winning the contest for power and influence there, and that it is the very nature of the United States as a champion of antiauthoritarian ways that is at the crux of the conflict. At the same time, his book lays down some serious challenges to partisans of engagement, especially the notion that graceful yielding to China’s sensibilities and interests will lead it toward responsible and moderate global citizenship. There is, quite simply, something menacing in the rise to great power of a country as big, ambitious, opaque, and intellectually controlled as China, with its inclination to bully smaller countries in its neighborhood (not to mention Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Chinese dissidents), its cultivation of grievances toward the rest of the world, and its propaganda department’s control over the truth itself.
A big part of the challenge posed by China is the success that it has had in presenting an alternative to the democratic values and practices that the United States and other countries advocate. Two decades ago, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the conviction became almost universal that for a country to be successful, it had to follow the “free-market” democratic model. Notwithstanding China’s harsh treatment of dissidents and its single-party rule, its impressive growth, its investment in technology, its foreign exchange reserves, its awesome infrastructure development, and the other features of its state-planned progress are an implicit demonstration that the Western model isn’t the only workable one, especially at a time when the West is experiencing its own unplanned economic crisis. This is a notion as common in the Chinese press as the notion that American concern about rights is just an excuse to maintain global dominance. “An embattled West has been caught unprepared by a defiant but practical China,” a columnist in Global Times exulted recently. He might be right.