Managing U.S.-China Relations? Challenging. Picking a Good Guidebook? Easy: The China Challenge

Book Review: A unique window into the U.S.-China relationship that should not be missed. 

Rigorous, measured, readable scholarship is always in insufficient supply generally. It is particularly so concerning the vital issue of U.S.-China relations. The world is awash in books on the twenty-first century’s most important bilateral relationship, but even amid this torrent The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power by Princeton University professor Thomas J. Christensen represents a unique contribution. Given the difficulties inherent in its weighty subject, the volume will remain relevant for years to come. Above all, it offers Christensen’s unique perspective as a leading scholar on the topic who has also served as a high-level diplomat—namely, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs with responsibility for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia.

Christensen writes clearly, in active voice. He substantiates his points with wide-ranging but carefully distilled data and citations. He frequently offers personal recollections (literally dropping his coffee upon reading news that China voted for UN Security Council Resolution 1970, referring Qadaffi’s government to the International Criminal Court). He offers deep reflection, and makes connections that are both vivid and relevant. This is at once remarkably accessible and represents the thinking person’s guide to understanding Sino-American relations. If you want overwrought and simplistic narratives, this is not the book for you. Here is what it does offer:

- A compelling case that today’s international system allows the United States and China to coexist peacefully and further common interests and responsibilities, even as they continue to compete in specific areas.

- Reason for nuanced concern: China remains far from surpassing the United States, but will pose problems even without catching up.

- A positive vision for bringing a rising China further into the twenty-first century international system, and for shaping its policy choices in a mutually-favorable direction.

- Detailed insights into what approaches have been more, and less, effective in influencing Beijing’s behavior productively.

- Specific recommendations for subsequent U.S. policymakers, including the next president, to address these important issues.

Reality Check:

To accomplish these important but difficult tasks, Christensen begins by establishing a strong analytical foundation. With a scholar’s detachment, he tackles theoretical misconceptions head-on, drills down analytically, and pays attention to essential economic underpinnings that all too many professors of international relations and security studies ignore. He emphasizes, for instance, what any industry expert will patiently explain, but which few academics or politicians understand: “rhetoric about energy independence… is fundamentally misguided and misinformed. Oil is a globalized commodity and no one can cut the United States off from supply….” Christensen scrutinizes Chinese trade figures and finds that these statistics are inflated by increasing dependence on foreign oil—a sign of potential vulnerability rather than strength. As he summarizes, it “makes no sense” to view Chinese energy dependence as “a source of national power.” Yet that is precisely the outcome if statistics concerning energy imports are not considered correctly. This is one of many instances in which Christensen’s scholarly attention to detail provides important context for assessing China’s trajectory and influence.

While Christensen is respectful to all whom he mentions (a trait for which he is known), he is not afraid to highlight unsound or unsubstantiated assertions that have gained undeserved traction in China policy debates. This includes what many would see as flip-flopping by Paul Krugman on the impact of Chinese economic growth on the United States. Similarly, Christensen eschews “direct comparison of numerical indicators, free of context, to judge military advantage.” This is a refreshing alternative to blanket assertions that the U.S. military or its budget is larger, by a given metric, than some number of other countries’ assets combined. In examining historical levels of American defense spending, Christensen rightly rejects “the argument that somehow the defense budget is undercutting the overall economic foundations of U.S. power.” It is likewise noteworthy that Washington enjoys formal defense commitments with sixty-two political entities. By contrast, Beijing has only a formal alliance with Pyongyang, a security partnership with Islamabad, and defense cooperation with Moscow. With partners like those…