Book Review: ‘The Contest of the Century,’ by Geoff Dyer; China can’t change its history as a regional hegemon. It can’t change its size and population. And it can’t change its location.

Book Review: ‘The Contest of the Century,’ by Geoff Dyer

China can’t change its history as a regional hegemon. It can’t change its size and population. And it can’t change its location.


Feb. 10, 2014 7:24 p.m. ET

There is a tendency to view China‘s policies as part of a long-term strategic design, first for restoring its historic centrality in Asia and ultimately for displacing the U.S. as the world’s top power. But as Geoff Dyer observes in his stellar book, “The Contest of the Century,” the likelier explanation is more banal: Given its rapid economic growth, China is adopting a more expansive vision of its national interests and modernizing its military to match that vision. The challenge is to distinguish between those policies of Beijing that any other rising power would develop and those that could fundamentally alter the postwar global order.

Chinese leaders insist that they will avoid the mistakes that Germany and Japan made in the first half of the 20th century: As Communist Party foreign-policy adviser Zheng Bijian wrote in a 2005 Foreign Affairs magazine article, Beijing would achieve a “peaceful rise” by transcending “ideological differences to strive for peace, development, and cooperation with all countries of the world.” Today that optimism seems misplaced. The more China attempts to push the U.S. back into the Pacific Ocean and resolve its territorial disputes, the more it stimulates the formation of a countervailing coalition in the Asia-Pacific.

Mr. Dyer, a journalist for the Financial Times, cites three recent events that have shaped China’s current strategic predicament. In May 2009, the regime resurrected its “nine-dash line”—a self-declared maritime border that encompasses some 80% of the South China Sea—in a communiqué to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Then, in 2010, China stood on the sidelines after North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. And when in the same year Tokyo detained the captain of a Chinese trawler that had collided with two Japanese military vessels in Japanese-controlled waters, Beijing imposed an embargo on the export of rare earths to Japan.

As Mr. Dyer shows, China’s embattled position within the region also stems from immutable factors. It can’t change its history as a regional hegemon, which continues to alarm its neighbors. It can’t change its size—though former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechiwas remiss to declare at a 2010 regional forum that “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.” And it can’t change its location: Mr. Dyer notes that it is encircled by “successful and ambitious states who also believe this is their time.”

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The Contest of the Century

By Geoff Dyer
(Knopf, 308 pages, $26.95)

Complicating matters is that numerous voices now shape China’s foreign policy. Its leaders confront “powerful vested interests within the party-state,” the author writes, as well as “an officer class that has its own hawkish take on global affairs” and the “nationalist views of a rising middle class.” There are marked divisions within these factions, and, because of the opaque nature of party decision-making, Beijing’s conduct can appear malign and conspiratorial even when it isn’t.

Momentum also undermines China’s regional charm offensives. After three and a half decades of torrid growth, it has the world’s second largest economy and is the largest trading country. Progress of such rapidity and scale is an invitation to scrutiny. China’s leaders are acutely aware, moreover, that their legitimacy depends in large part on continuing to improve their citizens’ livelihoods. The frenetic pace at which China is securing vital commodities around the world reflects this anxiety. As environmental degradation worsens, resource shortages grow and demographics deteriorate, China will become more dependent on outsiders to sustain its growth. Where its leaders discern vulnerability, however, many others see a Chinese dragon trying to buy the world.

But China’s myriad challenges don’t guarantee U.S. victory in the contest referred to by Mr. Dyer’s title. According to an “iron rule” that he says governs the region’s geopolitics, Washington will lose if it tries to enlist China’s neighbors in an effort to contain its rise. Instead, the U.S. must establish “a convincing long-term economic agenda” that binds theAmerican economy to that of the Far East. Thus stagnation in negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he writes, “would be an enormous setback to the U.S.’s efforts to demonstrate that it has more to offer Asia than just its navy.” But demonstrating staying power carries a significant risk of its own: If China’s neighbors conclude that the U.S. will protect them no matter what contingency arises, they may opt to free-ride on U.S. security guarantees rather than develop their own capabilities.

Mr. Dyer is optimistic that the U.S. will “win”: that is, “retain its role at the center of international affairs.” But he doesn’t subscribe to unwarranted zero-sum logic. Given that China wasn’t too long ago an isolated, impoverished backwater, vulnerable to predation from without and collapse from within, becoming the second most important pillar of the international system would scarcely constitute a “loss.”

The real prize in U.S.-China competition would be the “new model of great-power relations” that President Obama and President Xi have proposed. One hopes that historians of a century hence will commend the two countries for inaugurating a new era of international relations, one in which a pre-eminent power and its principal challenger were able to both compete and collaborate in service of the global interest.

Mr. Wyne is an associate of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a co-author of ” Lee Kuan Yew : The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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