The Next Global Hegemon?

Geoff Dyer: China's effort to displace the U.S. will fail

Geoff Dyer (R), author of "The Contest of the Century"
Geoff Dyer (R), author of "The Contest of the Century"

Veteran Financial Times journalist Geoff Dyer argues that China has embarked on a traditional, great power–style competition with the U.S. to reshape the world order, but that the country is too weak to prevail. As Dyer quipped, “I went to China and came away believing in the U.S.” The former Beijing bureau chief for the Times spoke on his new book, The Contest of the Century, before a full house of Asia Society and Mechanics Institute members on February 12th.

Dyer dates the great shift in China strategy to 2008. The previous decade was marked by a “charm offensive” that was top down but successful in persuading many that China’s rise was indeed peaceful and positive sum, winning hearts and minds across Asia. That approach gave way to a new, more aggressive and sharp-elbowed approach that has been, said Dyer, largely counter-productive.

Why the shift? Dyer traces it to the global financial crisis that began in 2007, prompting a new sense of Chinese ascension and U.S. decline among many in China’s leadership. The country’s new “raucous nationalism” was on full display during the 2009 celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the PRC’s founding, and at least economically, China had the goods to back up its new assertiveness. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s economy was never more than half the size of the US economy, but China’s domestic economy is on track to overtake that of the U.S. in years, not decades.

The stakes of the competition are huge, ranging from control of the seas to global economic leadership to defining the global debate over democracy and human rights. Even so, the U.S. response has been limited and inconsistent. The “war on terror”, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, said Dyer, “strategic gifts” to China that left Washington distracted from Asia for a decade. The recent U.S. policy of “rebalancing” toward Asia faces considerable skepticism. The U.S. needs to make a more forceful and consistent effort, Dyer said, in leading a growth coalition and combatting what he sees as a “malaise over globalization.” President Obama’s cancellation of his trip to Asia last fall was understandable given the US government’s shutdown, but did little to assuage the doubts of real and would-be allies in the region.

Even so, China’s recent efforts to rule are backfiring in many ways. Its aggression in the South and East China Seas is undermining relations with its neighbors. Despite its efforts, the country’s closest allies remain Pakistan and North Korea, neither of which are about to tip the balance in Beijing’s favor. Last week, China once again defended the Kim Jong-un regime from international criticism – this time, over the charges in the unprecedented UN Human Rights Commission report on North Korea released on February 17th.

Domestically, China faces a number of formidable challenges, including corruption, factionalism, slowing economic growth, income inequality, an overleveraged financial system, and – perhaps most severely – a mounting environmental crisis, with the very health of the Chinese people is under attack by the water they drink and the air they breathe. 

Our best hope, Dyer said, is for an accommodation between the two great powers. The U.S. may be weakening, but China is not strong enough to displace it – not now, and arguably not for decades into the future. The two countries have many shared interests, perhaps most notably in a stable, growing world economy. Even today, the U.S. and Chinese economies are so profoundly interwoven that the notion of either power “going it alone” is fanciful. Competition between the two great powers is bound to grow, but the commitment of each to pursuing shared interests is, said an optimistic Dyer, even more powerful.