Miscalculating on China, With Aaron L. Friedberg

Aaron L. Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how the United States got China wrong and what the Biden administration can do to rectify its China strategy.

June 21, 2022 — 35:54 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Aaron L. Friedberg

Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University

Show Notes

Aaron L. Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how the United States got China wrong and what the Biden administration can do to rectify its China strategy.

 

Books Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Aaron L. Friedberg, Getting China Wrong (2022)

 

Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late 20th Century (1993)

 

Michael Mandelbaum, The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (2022)

 

David Shambaugh, China's Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (2008)

 

Articles Mentioned

 

Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?The National Interest (Summer 1989)

 

Additional Articles by Aaron L. Friedberg

 

"An Answer to Aggression," Foreign Affairs (September/October 2020)

 

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to the President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. This week's topic is why the United States got China wrong. With me to discuss how the United States turned from engagement with China to competition is Aaron Friedberg. Aaron is professor of politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. And co-director of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs Center for International Security Studies. He is also a senior advisor to the National Bureau of Asian Research, and a non-resident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Aaron's most recent book, Getting China Wrong is out now. Aaron, thanks for coming back on the President's Inbox.

Aaron Friedberg:

Thank you very much for having me, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Aaron, it's safe to say that the title of your book, Getting China Wrong, communicates the argument that you make. You argue that the policy of engagement with China that the United States pursued for nearly half a century proved to be a failure. You write that it was a gamble rather than a blunder, but the odds were always extremely long. I want to get into why you reached that conclusion. But perhaps we can begin with an explanation of what the policy of engagement was and why Washington opted for it.

Aaron Friedberg:

There was an earlier variant, a Cold War variant of the policy of engagement, and then a post Cold War variant to that policy. The earlier variant really emerges in the early 70s with the Nixon-Kissinger opening so called, to China. And the purpose of that exercise was to build up China as a counterweight to Soviet power, because it was perceived for most of that time that the Soviet Union was rising and growing in strength. And the United States and China both felt the need to cooperate with one and other to counter Soviet power. Once the Soviet Union had disappeared, a new rationale for engagement emerged. And I would argue, and I argue in the book that it really had three elements to it, three expectations. One was that by engaging with China economically, but also across the board, social, scientific, educational cooperation and contact. By doing all of that, the United States and the other Western powers would welcome China into the existing international system.

Aaron Friedberg:

And that over time, that engagement in the system would cause China's leaders to see their interest as lying in supporting the existing system, rather than trying to change it or stillest to overthrow it. So that was number one. Number two was the expectation that with time, and particularly as China became more and more integrated into what was becoming a truly global economic system. There would be powerful forces and indeed ultimately irresistible forces pushing China towards greater and greater reliance on the market, greater and greater openness, liberalization.

Aaron Friedberg:

So that eventually China's economic system would come more closely to resemble those of other advanced industrial countries in the West. So that was number two. And number three was the belief, I think widely shared, that over time for a variety of reasons, engagement would set in motion forces that would eventually lead to political liberalization in China. And there were many overlapping arguments for believing that. Maybe the most important one was the idea that economic growth leads to the emergence of a middle class. And historically the middle class has been the standard bearer for political liberalization in Europe in the 19th century, in Asia and the 20th century. So that as China grew richer and stronger, as it was expected to do, it would also be transformed in ways that would mean that it didn't pose a real threat to the United States or to the other democracies. That was the theory.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay. And this was a bipartisan expectation?

Aaron Friedberg:

Yes, I think so. I should say engagement was one part of a larger strategy. And in the book I taught mostly about engagement. But there was another piece to it, which I would call balancing. Which was efforts to maintain a favorable balance of hard power, military power in the Asian Pacific, even as China grew stronger. A sort of insurance policy. And that really got going in a serious way in the mid 90s. And it was continued and has continued down to the present. But the real purpose of balancing was kind of to hold the ring while engagement worked its magic on China. Engagement was really doing the work. That was the key.

Jim Lindsay:

Now I think it's safe to say that the political zeitgeist in Washington has changed from engagement to a belief in the return of geopolitical competition. I will note that the Biden administration's policy toward China in many ways accepts the premises of the Trump administration's strategic great power competition view of things. We're going to get to that in a second. But in retrospect, the engagement policy could be portrayed as being naive. And I'm curious, why is it that 30 years ago, 20 years ago, both Republicans and Democrats believed that engagement was the best bet?

Aaron Friedberg:

I actually don't think it was naive. Although there was plenty of naivete to go around. At the time late 1980s, early 1990s, the Soviet Union had unexpectedly collapsed. Its empire had been liberated. The Cold War had ended. And it really did seem to many people as if, as Frank Fukuyama put it in that famous article, history had come to an end, and liberal democracy had triumphed. So there was a kind of enthusiasm or optimism. Maybe naive in some deeper way, but not foolish. And there were other things. Our old professor, Samuel Huntington had published a book or did publish a book in 1991 called The Third Wave in which he analyzed the waves of the spread of democracy, going back to the 19th century. And concluded that the world was actually in the midst of a third wave that had started in the 1970s, and now seemed to be progressing even further all the way across Eurasia.

Aaron Friedberg:

In addition, this was a point at which technology was developing in a way that enabled instantaneous and virtually cost-free communication across the globe. The internet's just taking off. And that among other things, made it possible for companies to take their productive processes and divide them up into pieces, and do different parts of them in different places where it was most advantageous. So there were opportunities in low wage countries like China to invest. And also the belief, and this might have been a bit naive, that the internet, modern communications would spread good ideas. And that good ideas would win out over bad. And that this too would encourage political liberalization in China.

Aaron Friedberg:

Bill Clinton gave this famous speech in 1997 where he said, "Controlling the internet is like trying to nail jello to the wall." And everybody laughed. Of course, it turns out that you can nail jello to the wall if you're willing to spend enough money on it. So there were a lot of reasons for thinking that history was moving in this direction. It turned out not to be true. But my complaint, and you touched on this earlier, the idea of a gamble not a blunder. My criticism of engagement is not so much that it was attempted. But that there was not enough of an effort ongoing to assess how it was working. We sort of got on autopilot. And that policy took us a long way in directions that turned out to be dangerous and counter to our interests.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, one of these that's striking to me, Aaron, as I was reading Getting China Wrong is the premise of engagement was about the power of economics, and economic interactions to transform countries. And I just come off reading Michael Mandelbaum's new book, The Four Eras of American Power in which he makes the argument that one consistent theme throughout American history is this very strong belief in the power of economics, and of the market to change countries, to remake the world. And that seems to be really sort of a strong theme in this whole idea of engagement and what it would do.

Aaron Friedberg:

Yes, absolutely. And I would say it's actually, it's that. But it's even something broader than that, that's maybe particular to the United States. The way I frame it in the book is to say that in the 20th century, the United States, and to varying degrees, the other democratic countries, tried three times to build a global liberal international system. In other words, a system that would consist primarily of liberal democratic countries would be joined together by free trade, that would resolve their disputes through international institutions, international law and so on. And the first two of those efforts failed. The first one is after the First World War. So Woodrow Wilson's idea of collective security, league of nations. The second one that was kind of stillborn and never really got going, was the idea in the minds of FDR and some of his advisors as the Second World War drew to a close, that it might be possible again to do that, creating the UN and other institutions.

Aaron Friedberg:

And that didn't go anywhere largely because the Soviet Union wanted no part of it, and was not in fact a liberal democracy. And then the third time around is at the end of the Cold War. So it's as if every time American policy makers are confronted with a question, "What do we want the world to look like?" We have the power, and now because of circumstances, we have the need to answer that question. They give the same answer, which is not surprising. We want this liberal international order, which in a way is a global reflection of the values on which our own system is built. And the economic part of that is critically important. But I think it's even bigger than that. It's this vision of perpetual peace as a manual concept. And what's happened now, or one way of thinking about where we are now is that that third effort has failed decisively. And the question is, what are we going to do now?

Jim Lindsay:

Well, my impression again from reading in the book, and you devote much of the middle portion of the book to this topic is that Chinese leaders were actually concerned that American strategic thinkers were right. That they would be able to change China through this integration, that markets would triumph over Mao. And that they mobilized to make sure that didn't happen. Talk to me about that.

Aaron Friedberg:

That's exactly right. And that really is the key message I think of the central part of the book. The three middle chapters of the book look at China's efforts to maintain political control. It's the evolution of its economic policy and also of its strategy. But really at the heart of all of that was the conviction, the determination of China's communist party rulers to maintain their monopoly on domestic political power. To me, that's the key that explains, if not everything, a good deal about what China does today and what its leaders were thinking, and what they were trying to accomplish in the past. And that's been a consistent feature of this system that's passed on from one generation of leaders to the next. And yes, Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues were concerned about this. Deng famously said, "When you open the window, it lets in fresh air. But it also lets in flies." Of course the flies were the dangerous corrupting ideas that were associated with liberal democracy.

Aaron Friedberg:

But Deng was convinced that China had no choice. It had just gone through the horrors of the cultural revolution. And before that the horrors of the Great Leap Forward, it was in terrible shape. And he believed that it was necessary to introduce an element of the market into the Chinese system in order to make progress. But at the same time, he was determined to keep that process under control. I quote one of Deng's colleagues, Chen Yun who said, "The market's like a bird in a cage. We have to keep it. It lays the golden egg. It's necessary for good things to happen, but we can't let it fly free." And I think that's been the attitude of successive generations of Chinese leaders.

Aaron Friedberg:

Even today, CCP leaders talk about the thread of what they refer to as peaceful evolution. And that's actually a phrase that was used by John Foster Dulles in the 1950s, to refer not so much to China, but the countries of Eastern Europe when the issue was whether the United States was going to intervene to help the Hungarian revolution, and so on. And Dulles and Eisenhower concluded the answer was, "No, but we will try to bring about peaceful evolution through the power of our ideas. We'll try to promote liberalization in the Soviet Block."

Jim Lindsay:

And just for people who don't know the Dulles brothers, John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State to Dwight Eisenhower, and is the man for whom Dulles International Airport outside of Washington D.C. is named. His brother Allen was director of the CIA.

Aaron Friedberg:

Yes, that's right. And so Mao and then Deng and others always had it in their heads that the Americans, the West was trying to promote peaceful evolution in China. And to them that meant overthrowing the Communist party, basically. Transforming China's domestic political systems, so that it would no longer be organized along Leninist lines. And of course, they weren't entirely wrong in that belief. That really was one of the goals of our strategy.

Jim Lindsay:

But we were open about it. That's what American presidents, Democratic and Republicans said in their speeches. That engagement was going to be transformational.

Aaron Friedberg:

Yes. That, I think it's interesting to trace the history of that rhetoric, because I think it becomes more guarded as you get into the 21st century. But certainly George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, very much George W. Bush, Obama somewhat less, all talked about this idea. And there's another famous incident may also been in 1997, where Clinton appears on the stage with Jiang Zemin and says to him, "You're on the wrong side of history." But not as a threat, but, "Come on in. The water's great. It won't hurt." But that's not how the CCP leaders saw it. They believed that this was a nefarious effort to undermine them. And they absolutely still believe that today.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, the interesting thing here is the role that Tiananmen Square plays. I mean, if you go back, Americans interpreted Tiananmen Square as sort of the harbinger of what was to come, that you would see more democracy in China. But as you write, Tiananmen Square frightened the CCP leadership, and they cracked down. So rather than being sort of the preface to the future, it was the high watermark in many ways of the democratization effort in China.

Aaron Friedberg:

I think unfortunately that is so, becomes clearer in retrospect than perhaps it was at the time. There were some people in and around the Communist party in the 1980s who talked about the need for political reform. And some of them even meant something that resembled democratization. Those people were not in the top leadership, but there were intellectuals and others. And there were people in the top leadership who were somewhat sympathetic to those ideas, although none of them ever endorsed anything that really resembled true political liberalization.

Jim Lindsay:

There was no Thomas Jefferson in the-

Aaron Friedberg:

No.

Jim Lindsay:

... CCP.

Aaron Friedberg:

No. And not even a reformer who I think would have seriously believed that that was the direction in which they should go. They were all Leninist to varying degrees. Some of them were more willing to experiment than others. What happens after Tiananmen is that the people who had even come close to advocating those things, and then the intellectuals who had said these things more openly, were all purged. Some of them were imprisoned. Others were driven out of the country.

Aaron Friedberg:

And I think the likelihood that China would've ever followed the path on which our policy assumed that it was traveling towards gradual liberalization, diminished drastically after Tiananmen. And the CCP leadership, again even today, is obsessively concerned about the possibility of disorder and instability. They study the Soviet collapse with tremendous energy. David Shamba has, I think, made this case most powerfully. They continue to look at it, study it, what went wrong. Xi Jinping has given speeches where he talks about why it happened. It's an object lesson for the current leaders. And that's wrapped up also with Tiananmen, "This is what happens when you let things get out of control." And they are not going to let things get out of control again.

Jim Lindsay:

I realize, Aaron, that it can be difficult sitting in 2022 to imagine how the world looked in 1992 or 2002. Because we have the advantage of knowing what has happened since then. But obviously, if you're thinking about how things looked in the 1990s for Americans, it did look like history was on their side. That democracies and markets were on a relentless march forward. But clearly as you get into the first decade of the 21st century, the vision of strategic engagement clearly isn't delivering. I mean, even with Bob Zelek, giving his speech about how China should become a responsible stakeholder, there is implicit to that the notion that the Chinese haven't been. So why was it that the United States foreign policy establishment was so slow to sort of notice that strategic engagement wasn't working the way they had envisioned?

Aaron Friedberg:

There are a lot of reasons sort of contributing to that. One is the power of these ideas, and the hopeful expectation that they would eventually be proven correct. Another which becomes even more important as time goes on is the power of various interest groups in American society who were benefiting from economic engagement, and wanted it to continue and were strongly opposed to any policies on the part of the United States, which they believed might threaten to disrupt that continuity and those opportunities for making money. I think we weren't looking in the right places necessarily, or we were tending to discount some of the evidence that was accumulating that suggested that things were not working out the way that we had hoped they would.

Aaron Friedberg:

There's another factor, which is extremely important after the turn of the century. And that's the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent preoccupation of several generations of American leaders with the problem of terrorism, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We really took our eye off the ball. And interestingly enough, the CCP leaders realized very quickly that that was likely to happen. So in 2002, Party Congress, they issue this proclamation that China has entered into what they described as a two decade period of strategic opportunity. And we know in retrospect that that was the result both of their recognition, that China's entry into the World Trade Organization, which had just happened the year before, would propel its economic growth. I think it worked out even better for a while than they had hoped.

Aaron Friedberg:

And also, and this is the unspoken part, their belief that the United States in fact would be preoccupied with other threats in other parts of the world. And that this would give them 20 some years in which to develop their wealth and power, while the United States was turned in other directions. And they weren't wrong. Maybe we started to turn back a little sooner than they had expected. But we were preoccupied with other problems for a long time. There was a lot of wishful thinking. And I have to say also, there was pretty concerted efforts to discredit or suppress contrary arguments, both in the public sphere and inside the government. It was not good for people's careers necessarily to say that the emperor had no clothes, and that the policy wasn't working. So it's a whole bunch of things coming together. It keeps us locked on this policy for a lot longer than we should have been.

Jim Lindsay:

This sort of jogs two things in my mind. One is that as we look back over the post Cold War phase of strategic engagement, I don't think anybody in the United States expected China to grow as fast as it did. I'm not even sure the Chinese thought they were going to grow as fast as they did. They were talking in the 90s about having growth rates of 5 to 6%. And then they ended up with double digit economic growth. I think a rate that it's really hard to find elsewhere in history. I also think just getting back to this question of the delay in sort of reacting to the fact that China wasn't going in the direction we hoped. That the Chinese were quite adept at holding out the prospect of cooperation, particularly on what we might call the big transnational issues like climate change. And I think the Obama administration in particular sort of checked its concern over issues like island building in the South China Sea, because he was hoping to do some big deal with the Chinese on climate change, and several other issues.

Aaron Friedberg:

I'm glad you mentioned that, because this is another factor that's important in understanding why we didn't shift away sooner than we did. Yes, adept at holding out the prospect of cooperation, at entangling us in complex lengthy, high level dialogues that in the end really didn't result in very much. Chinese CCP strategists are very good at picking up on things that we say internally in our own discussion, and then repeating them back. So we can be helpful, everyone has to cooperate in dealing with the problem of proliferation or the problem of terrorism, or the problem of climate change. And all the way back to the 1990s CCP leaders were repeating those things. And of course they were cooperating on some things some of the time to some degree. But it was always the carrot that was hanging out there. It was always the reason for not rocking the boat and not rethinking our strategy.

Aaron Friedberg:

There's an additional element of this. I mean, what I've just been describing, what you mentioned was the sort of diplomatic part of their strategy. There are also political influence operations. CCP right from the start, I mean going back to the 70s, been very adept at cultivating individuals, and in some cases institutions, in the societies of democratic countries, including the United States. And encouraging them to express views that support policies that happen also to be conducive to the interests of the CCP. They're not brainwashing people or getting them to think things they wouldn't think otherwise. But they're providing them with additional incentives to take those positions. They're working to shape the perceptions of our elites and of our policy makers. And they've been doing that all the way along. It's just that those efforts now are not nearly as successful as they were for quite a long time.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, anyone listening to our conversation, Aaron, might wonder was there ever really an alternative to engagement? Was an engagement something Washington had to do, because it had no basis on which to pursue a more aggressive or assertive policy toward China?

Aaron Friedberg:

The problem I have with this formulation is that it tends to make things binary. So either we had to do what we did, or the only alternative was some crazy Cold War containment from the early 1990s onward, isolation of China. And that was not in the cards. There was no reason to have done that. I think what that formulation leaves out or discounts is the possibility in my view, the necessity in fact of finding approaches that fell somewhere in between those extremes. That would've required constant updating and constant assessment of where things were going. And a degree of flexibility in our own policy, so that we could adjust what we were doing in response to what they were doing. But we didn't really do that. Again, it was just kind of an autopilot we got locked on, and we did not adjust. And we could have, and we should have. But for all of these reasons we've been discussing, we didn't. There were alternatives. It's just that we chose not to pursue them.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let me ask you another argument I'm sure you've heard a lot of. And it goes along the following lines that engagement would've worked, it would've produced the outcomes that Americans anticipated in 1990s, if not for Xi Jinping. And he is the pivot in history, the hinge in history. He succeeds in becoming the leader of China and he takes China off in a much more authoritarian direction. And in order to sustain the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, a much more nationalist assertive foreign policy. What do you make of that argument?

Aaron Friedberg:

Well, Xi Jinping is a useful fall guy. If you want to say the policy was working, therefore I, the advocate of that policy was not wrong. This guy came in from out of nowhere and yanked the wheel, and pulled China in this aggressive nationalist direction. That's very reassuring, I think. Among other things, it seems to imply that if we just wait him out, once he's gone, things will somehow go back to normal.

Jim Lindsay:

He may not be gone for a while.

Aaron Friedberg:

Well, looks like he's intending to stick around for quite a while. But even aside from that, in my view, and I try to demonstrate this in the book, all of the tendencies, all of the trends that have become more troubling to people in the United States and in the West in Xi Jinping's policies, both at home and abroad, were in fact visible before he came to power. And all of them in fact are visible, certainly in the latter half of Hu Jintao tenure term of office. And what that suggests to me is that those policies, although Xi accelerated them in every case, those policies reflected what I think was a consensus view on the part of the CCP leadership about the challenges that they faced at home in maintaining political control, the challenges to their economic policy, how to have growth while maintaining CCP domination and control of the economy. And how China could and should assert itself as its power grew.

Aaron Friedberg:

I think there was a consensus in favor of movement in the direction that we saw in the late Hu period, and that we've seen even more strikingly under Xi Jinping. In my view, if you look at the whole swath of history of the PRC. So going back to 1949, the ends, the objectives that the party and its leaders have pursued have been remarkably constant. Maybe they've been defined in slightly different ways. But there really have been two all the way along.

Aaron Friedberg:

One we've mentioned, which is the imperative to maintain the CCP's monopoly of power. And two is the idea that ultimately, party's mission is to restore China to a position as one of the, if not the greatest of the great powers. And that it had fallen out of that position for various reasons. And now the point was, and the goal was to put it back. The variations have been not so much in the ends as in the means. There have been variations in the policies. But those goals have been pursued, I think, consistently over the history of the entire country. And we're seeing now a more assertive and aggressive variant of those policies. But they're not a radical deviation in my view from what came before.

Jim Lindsay:

So what comes next then, Aaron? We can't roll back the tape and replay history. What is the smart, wise strategy for the United States to pursue?

Aaron Friedberg:

One of the problems with not having modulated our policies along the way is that we've allowed ourselves to get in a hole or in various holes where we're behind where we should be. We see that in dealing with the military balance in the Indo-Pacific. I think we see it increasingly in the area of economic and technological cooperation. We see it also in our response, belated response to China's efforts to extend its influence in the developing world. We're sort of running along after all of those things. So we're in catch up mode. One of the difficulties with that of course is that there's a tendency once you start doing those things, there's a danger of overreacting. So you've underacted, now you may overreact.

Jim Lindsay:

Long history of that in U.S. foreign policy.

Aaron Friedberg:

Yes. But I have to say I'm less concerned about that than I am about under-reaction. Because I think there's a real danger that the CCP leadership believes what it says about the tides of history flowing in its favor. And the leadership now says explicitly the West is declining, meaning the United States, the East is rising, meaning China. And I fear that they may underestimate our resolve to respond to possibility of aggression on their part.

Jim Lindsay:

I would also worry they underestimate our capacity.

Aaron Friedberg:

Yes, I think they do. And not entirely without reason. We've allowed ourselves to get into a situation, for example, where we're heavily dependent on imports from China that provide the inputs for a variety of goods that we need to manufacture, including military systems almost completely dependent on rare earth minerals, highly dependent on some electronic components, and so on. That does not make sense if you transition from a world in which you're thinking, "These guys are basically our friends." To thinking, "These guys may be our enemies if we get into a future conflict." So I think we have to do a number of things. One, our leaders have to speak more clearly than they have about the nature of this challenge, and the fact that it isn't going to go away anytime soon. That it isn't just about this policy or that policy. That our difficulties reflect the character of the CCP regime. That's number one. It's a public education, but it's also a mobilization process.

Aaron Friedberg:

Number two, we have to do more. And I think we are both on our own and with our allies to try to maintain that favorable balance of power to offset the very rapid and now very impressive growth of China's military capabilities, particularly those that are focused in the Indo-Pacific. So that's number two. Number three, I think we have to rethink and substantially restructure our economic relationship with China. And I've touched on some of the reasons why this is so, and there are others. And it's not just in this country that people are coming to that realization. I think it's also-

Jim Lindsay:

But do you have in mind a selective decoupling, not a-

Aaron Friedberg:

That's right.

Jim Lindsay:

... an entire withdrawal or isolationism.

Aaron Friedberg:

No, I don't think that's possible or desirable. It could happen if there were a major conflict between China and the United States, but it would not be a good thing.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, it actually looks like China's trying to decouple from the West in many ways. Certainly in high tech sectors.

Aaron Friedberg:

Well, it's a particular form of decoupling. I think what they would like is for us to remain open to their exports, access to our technology, access to our capital while they close themselves off, and try to build up their capabilities so they're less and less dependent on us. That's not interdependence, that's an asymmetric form of dependence, which they believe not without reason, would give them strategic advantage. So we need to offset that. And then I guess the last thing is the Chinese talk about ... The CCP talks about discursive struggle, which is really the war of narratives or ideological competition. And for a variety of reasons, people in this country and in the West more generally have been very reluctant to acknowledge that in fact we're engaged in an ideological competition with China. But we are certainly from the point of view of the CCP leadership, we are.

Aaron Friedberg:

And we need to embrace that by which I mean, we have to be more candid and forceful in talking about the flaws and failings of their system. And they certainly have no hesitation in doing that when they speak about us. But we've been still rather delicate. We've fallen into this habit of trying to avoid giving offense and so on.

Aaron Friedberg:

At the same time, we need also to demonstrate the effectiveness of liberal democracy, and also to be willing to advocate liberal democracy as a superior form of government. Do we believe this, or don't we? I think we do, or we should. Of course we have to ... It's not just the words, it's the deeds. But we're involved now I think in a competition for influence in the developing world. And China is putting forward an alternative model, which emphasizes control, authoritarian politics, and control over the market. And could be appealing in some places to some leaders. And I don't think we can afford to ignore that. So we need to wage discursive struggle. It is by the way, the last thing in the world that the CCP leadership wants us to do. And you can tell that they're extremely sensitive about that, because they denounce anyone who would say that as having a Cold War mentality. They encourage the belief that there is no ideological ... There are no ideological stakes in this competition. Well, that's nonsense. That's not really-

Jim Lindsay:

Well, I always find fascinating how frequently Beijing claims it's a democracy.

Aaron Friedberg:

Well, that's their ... Yes. They've had various ways of saying that.

Jim Lindsay:

I would say that's a tell.

Aaron Friedberg:

Yeah, that's true. What is it? Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. So yeah, they feel the need to say, "We're the real democrats." And also you see how insecure they are about their own people, about their legitimacy and their ability to win the support, the willing support of their people by their own account. They now spend more on maintaining domestic control than they do on their traditional military forces. They've invested huge resources in collecting information that'll enable them to monitor the activities of virtually all of their citizens. They do not rest easy, because they don't have the opportunity to refresh their legitimacy with regular elections. So they have a vulnerability. And we should not be so delicate about exploiting it.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I'll close up the President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics, international affairs at Princeton University. Aaron's new book, Getting China Wrong is out now. Aaron, thanks for joining me.

Aaron Friedberg:

Thank you very much.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to the President's Inbox on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And leave us a review. We love to hear from listeners. You can find the books and articles mentioned in this episode, as well as a transcript of our conversation on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed on The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Rafaela Seiwert, with senior podcast producer, Gabrielle Sierra. Rafaela did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Rafaela. Special thanks go out to John David Cobb, Margaret Gach, and Markus Zakaria for their assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

 

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Leslie Vinjamuri, the Director of the US and the Americas programme and Dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs at Chatham Hou...

Leslie Vinjamuri, the Director of the US and the Americas programme and Dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs at Chatham Hou...

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Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Washington Post columnist, sits down with Jam...

Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Washington Post columnist, sits down with Jam...

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Evan Greenberg, chairman and CEO of Chubb, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss growing tensions in U.S.-China economic relations, the importance of trade to t...

Evan Greenberg, chairman and CEO of Chubb, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss growing tensions in U.S.-China economic relations, the importance of trade to t...

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Gernot Wagner, climate economist at Columbia Business School, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss progress in the green energy transition and the risks and be...

Gernot Wagner, climate economist at Columbia Business School, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss progress in the green energy transition and the risks and be...

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Ian Johnson, CFR’s Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss economic, political, and demographic development...

Ian Johnson, CFR’s Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss economic, political, and demographic development...

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Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR and Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy ...

Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR and Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy ...

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James M. Lindsay sits down with Ali Wyne, senior analyst of Global Macro-Geopolitics at Eurasia Group, to discuss great power competition and the growing rivalry bet...

James M. Lindsay sits down with Ali Wyne, senior analyst of Global Macro-Geopolitics at Eurasia Group, to discuss great power competition and the growing rivalry bet...

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James M. Lindsay sits down with Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, to discuss House Speaker Nancy Pelos...

James M. Lindsay sits down with Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, to discuss House Speaker Nancy Pelos...

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James M. Lindsay sits down with Michael R. Gordon, national security correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, to discuss the U.S. war against ISIS.    ...

James M. Lindsay sits down with Michael R. Gordon, national security correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, to discuss the U.S. war against ISIS.    ...

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Top Stories on CFR

United States

Immigration barriers for entrepreneurs and U.S.-educated STEM graduates hurt American innovation.

Democratic Republic of Congo

The Congolese government is letting energy firms bid for access to its vast oil and gas reserves, raising concerns about the potential climate consequences.

Taiwan

President Biden's comment on Taiwan independence is a break from his predecessors.