In “An Answer to Aggression,” (September/October 2020), Aaron Friedberg argues that the United States and its allies and partners should use aggressive policies to contain China. Friedberg repeatedly offers sweeping, unqualified worst-case statements about China’s views, intentions, and actions—playing loose with the facts and exhibiting a lack of understanding of aspects of the Chinese system—to justify zero-sum policy prescriptions. Coercive “push back” policies alone will not compel Beijing to do the United States’ bidding—as Washington’s Cuba policy demonstrates. To the contrary, such policies would increase the risk of conflict, strengthen chauvinistic nationalism in China, and reduce the chances that the United States can work with China to deal with urgent common problems.
U.S. policymakers must adopt a more careful and considered approach. The United States must coordinate with allies and partners not only to deter and compete with China when needed but also to incentivize Beijing to cooperate in addressing shared concerns such as global warming and current and future pandemics. Washington should aim to diminish the likelihood of nuclear war, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles, a costly arms race, and the spread of terrorism. It should seek a stable power balance in the Asia-Pacific region that respects the interests of all countries—including those of China. And it should revise and expand multilateral trade and investment agreements and foster international efforts to better address natural disasters and human rights abuses in all countries.
Such a strategy requires not belligerence and muscle flexing but vigorous and well-funded diplomacy backed by resilient and strategically deployed military forces designed to reinforce stability, not provoke confrontation. Managing the relationship with Beijing is a long-term project that cannot succeed without domestic revitalization, greater unity of national purpose, and a respect for global opinion. But above all, U.S. leaders have to take a much more realistic view of the United States’ relationship with China than is now common in Washington and avoid sliding into Friedberg’s black-and-white vision of confrontation.