In a recent forum held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Christopher Johnson led an open discussion with Geoff Dyer on Dyer’s new book, The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China, and How America Can Win. This book, according to CSIS, “gives an inside account of Beijing’s quest for influence and an explanation of how America can come out on top.”
Dyer opened up the conversation with a glaring fact that China’s role in the international realm has evolved tremendously over the past five years — that it began to assume more characteristics of a major global power. What triggered this change, Dyer argues, is related to two major phenomena: the financial crisis in 2008 and the pressure from below (from the citizens).
The former, in Dyer’s opinion, had a psychological impact on how China believes that it should begin to stand up for itself. The latter refers to an internet-based nationalism on the part of Chinese citizens, which prevents China from backing down as a major power, if not stepping up. In other words, the increasingly open dialogue among citizens (netizens) pressures the Chinese leadership to form better policies.
While China embarks upon the journey to become a global power, Dyer points out the issue of power fracturing, which could becomes a setback for China. On the one hand, China aggressively applies soft power in its foreign policy; though it also sometimes undermines indigenous soft power tools such as famous Chinese artists. On the other hand, the People’s Liberation of Army (PLA) struggles to understand its role in relation to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whether CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has full control of the PLA, according to Dyer, remains a question.
China’s rapid economic growth and military build-up took the U.S. by surprise. Nevertheless, Dyer is confident that the U.S. has powerful advantages, which “makes it hard for China to restore its central role in Asian affairs that it has enjoyed historically.” What Dyer proposes is for the U.S. to thoroughly focus itself in the region, rather than in the Middle East, by building alliances and by participating in economic development opportunities. After all, Dyer convincingly argues that the U.S. involvement in the region cannot solely be in the security dimension.
Michelle Chen is Program Assistant for Asia at CIPE.