Sino-American Antagonism: How Does This End?

Sino-American Antagonism: How Does This End?

Sino-American Antagonism: How Does This End?
Remarks to the Confucius Institute, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho

Fifty-three years ago, as a young foreign service officer, I helped ensure that Taipei rather than Beijing continued to represent China in the United Nations Security Council and elsewhere internationally.  Since then, I have seen relations between China and the United States evolve from mutual ostracism based on stereotypes that bore little resemblance to reality to varying degrees of cooperation and mutual understanding and back again.  Now we’re once again off to the races in all sorts of struggles with China with nary a clue where any of them will take us. 

It seems to me that before we get too far along this path, we ought to pause to think a bit about a few key questions.  These have been strikingly absent from our policy debate.  Specifically:

  • What are the stakes for China and for the United States respectively?
  • What current tactical and future strategic capabilities does each bring to the fight we’ve now begun?
  • What are the likely consequences for each side of protracted struggle with the other?
  • How are these struggles most likely to turn out?

So, in my remarks today, I’ll take the past as given and try to focus on the future.
The Chinese political elite appears to believe that five main things are stake:

  • A final reversal of the carve-up of China by European and Japanese imperialism, warlordism, the Chinese Civil War, and America’s Cold War intervention to separate Taiwan from the rest of the country.
  • Status and “face” (self-esteem fed by the deference of others) that offset past foreign insults to national dignity.
  • Assured defense against foreign “regime change” operations or military interventions that could threaten the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s return to wealth and power, or the consolidation of China’s claimed frontiers.
  • China’s uninterrupted return to the high economic and technological status it enjoyed before its eclipse by European imperialism.
  • A role in the management of the affairs of the Indo-Pacific region and the world commensurate with China’s size and burgeoning capabilities.

The American political elite also appears to believe that what’s at stake is five things:

  • U.S. retention of global and regional politico-military, economic, technological, and monetary primacy.
  • America’s reputation as the reliable military protector of lesser states in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere. 
  • American paramountcy in a world order guided by the liberal democratic norms professed by the European Enlightenment and the American Revolution
  • Economic security through reduced dependence on supply chains not controlled by the United States or countries beholden to it.
  • Reindustrialization, higher levels of well-paying employment, and the restoration of domestic socioeconomic tranquility.

The People’s Republic of China came into being seventy-two years ago.  For over one-third of its existence, the United States has been actively committed to the overthrow of its “Communist” government.  That appears once again to be a hope, if not an explicit objective, of U.S. policy.

China and the United States have never been evenly matched except in self-righteousness, unwillingness to admit error, and a tendency to scapegoat each other.  But, in many respects, the balance between the two countries is now rapidly shifting against America.  The world expects China to regain its historical position as one-third to two-fifths of the global economy.  China already has an economy that produces about one-third of the world’s manufactures and that is – by any measure other than nominal exchange rates – larger than that of the United States.  President Trump’s trade and technology wars convinced the Chinese that they had to reduce reliance on imported foreign technologies, develop their own autonomous capabilities, and become fully competitive with America.

China is now in some ways more connected internationally than the United States.  It is the largest foreign trade partner of most of the world’s economies, including the world’s largest – the European Union (EU).  Its preeminence in global trade and investment flows is growing.  The 700,000 Chinese students now enrolled in degree programs abroad dwarf the less than 60,000 students from the United States doing the same   American universities still attract over one million foreign students annually but nearly half a million international students now opt to study in China.  China’s role in global science and technological innovation is growing, while America’s is slipping.  Chinese have come to constitute over one-fourth of the world’s STEM workers.  They lead the world in patent applications by an increasingly wide margin.

Only four percent of American schools offer classes in Mandarin, but (with increasing competence) all Chinese schools teach English – the global lingua franca – from the third grade.  America’s xenophobic closure of Chinese government-sponsored “Confucius Institutes” promises to cripple even the current pathetic level of student exposure to the Chinese language in U.S. schools.  Meanwhile, the increasingly unwelcoming atmosphere on U.S. campuses has reduced applications by Chinese and other foreign students to American universities, especially in the physical sciences and engineering.

The challenges posed by the rise of China are clearly more economic than military, but China and the United States are now locked in a level of armed hostility not seen since the first decade of the Cold War.  Back then, U.S. forces dedicated to “containing” the People’s Republic and championing the rival Chinese regime on Taiwan were incomparably more modern and powerful than the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  Chinese forces were arrayed to resist an anticipated American attack they knew they could not defeat.  The U.S. Cold War policy of containment blocked China from effectively asserting ancient claims to islands in its near seas, while opening the way for other claimants to occupy them. 

The Chinese military can now defend their country against any conceivable foreign attack.  They also appear to be capable of taking Taiwan over American opposition – even if only at tremendous cost to themselves, Taiwan, and the United States.  It is disquieting that Beijing now judges that intimidation is the only way to bring Taipei to the negotiating table.  But it is reassuring that China still strives for cross-Strait accommodation rather than military conquest of Taiwan and its pacification.  The U.S. forces deployed along China’s coasts are there to deter such a conquest.  But their presence also has the effect of backing and bolstering Taiwan’s refusal to talk about – still less negotiate – a relationship with the rest of China that might meet the minimal requirements of Chinese nationalism and thereby perpetuate peace.

The danger is that, with the disappearance of any apparent path to a nonviolent resolution of the Taiwan issue, China could conclude that it has no alternative to the use of force.  It would not be surprising for it to calculate that to hold America at bay, it must match U.S. threats to it with equivalent threats to the United States.  This is, after all, the strategic logic that, during the Cold War, led the Soviet Union to match the missiles the United States had deployed to Turkey with its own in Cuba.  No one should rule out the possibility that Sino-American relations are headed toward an eventual reprise of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. 

America has long been in China’s face.  The way things are going, in the future, China may also be in America’s.  In the meantime, the aim of Chinese strategy is to raise the costs of American trans-Pacific power projection against it, not to threaten the United States.

President Biden has recognized that to deal effectively with an increasingly formidable China, the United States must strengthen itself as well as enlist the help of other countries.  He has therefore deferred immediate decisions about what politico-economic and military China policies he should adopt until his administration can test the willingness of Congress to redress American weaknesses and can consult with allies, partners, and friends abroad.  But, if Washington listens to those it seeks to recruit as auxiliaries in its opposition to China, it will discover that few of them share the all-out animus against China to which so many Americans have become committed.  President Biden may well find he faces a hard political choice between whether to moderate American hostility to China to garner third country support, or to stick with confrontational policies that separate the United States from most of its European and Asian allies.

The awkward reality is that Europeans do not feel militarily threatened by China.  Southeast and South Asians see Taiwan as a fight among Chinese from which they should keep their distance.  By contrast with Taiwanese, they fear intimidation, not conquest by China.  Even those countries, like Japan, with a direct strategic interest in the status of Taiwan don’t want to risk being drawn into a fight over it. 

The Taiwan issue is a legacy of the Chinese civil war and U.S. Cold War containment policies.  America’s allies look to Washington to manage it without reigniting conflict between the island and the rising great power on the Chinese mainland.  If the U.S. does end up in a war with China, America is likely to be on its own or almost so.

To further complicate matters, past asymmetries are in the process of reversing themselves as balances of economic, technological, and military power that long favored Washington shift in favor of Beijing.  The Greeks invented the concept of a “Europe” distinct from what they called “Asia.”  Chinese connectivity programs (the “Belt and Road”) are recreating a single “Eurasia.”  Many countries in that vast expanse see an increasingly wealthy and powerful China as an ineluctable part of their own future and prosperity.  Some seem more worried about collateral damage from aggressive actions by the United States than about great Han chauvinism.  Few find the injustices of contemporary Chinese authoritarianism attractive, but fewer still are inclined to bandwagon with the United States against China. 

By 2050, China is predicted to have a GDP of $58 trillion – almost three times larger than America’s today and more than two-thirds greater than the then-projected U.S. GDP of $34 trillion.  China’s rapidly aging population leaves it with no apparent alternative to Japanese-style domestic automation and the offshoring of labor-intensive work to places that still have fast-growing working-age populations, like Africa.  China is investing heavily in robotics, medicine, synthetic biology, nanobot cells and other technologies that can enhance and extend the productive lives of the aged.  It is also adjusting and expanding its social security and public health systems.  The United States faces analogous challenges, aggravated by increasingly xenophobic immigration policies, acceptance of mediocrity in education, crumbling infrastructure, and the pyramiding of national debt to finance routine government operations as well as correctives to damage from past self-indulgence.  Americans talk about these problems but have yet to address them.

A wave of new science-based industries is in the early stages of transforming human societies.  Examples include artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cloud analytics, blockchain-protected databases, microelectronics, the internet of things, electric and autonomous vehicles, robotics, nanotechnology, genomics, biopharmaceuticals, 3D/4D and bio-printing, virtual and augmented reality, nuclear fusion, and the synergies among these and other emerging technologies.

China is making major investments in the scientific and educational infrastructure and workforce needed to lead the development and deployment of most of these technologies.  By contrast, at present, the United States is in chronic fiscal deficit, immobilized by political gridlock, and mired in never-ending wars that divert funds needed for domestic rejuvenation to the Pentagon.  America’s human and physical infrastructure is already in sad condition, and it is deteriorating.  If these weaknesses are not corrected, China and others will soon eclipse the century-long U.S. preeminence in global science, technology, and education.  Or, as President Biden put it, China “will eat our lunch” and “own the future.”

Even if the United States overcomes its current political dysfunction and fiscal malnutrition, the upsurge in Chinese science, technology, engineering, and mathematics capabilities promises to challenge America’s retention of global as well as regional primacy.  The competition is not limited to the Asia-Pacific region.  It is multifaceted, and, in attempting to deal with it, the United States has sometimes been too clever by half – for example, excluding Beijing from international cooperation in space.  This has led to an increasingly robust set of indigenous Chinese space-based capabilities, many of which are of military relevance. 

Similarly, the U.S. effort to head off Chinese dominance of 5-G communications is now spurring the creation of a globally competitive semiconductor industry in China.  In the short term, the Chinese microelectronics manufacturing sector faces great difficulties.   It is always easier to buy things than to learn to make them.  But, in the longer term, China has the will, the talent, the wherewithal, and the market to succeed.  Human history is full of proofs that, one way or another, sooner or later, every technological advance can and will be duplicated, often with results that surpass the original.

The PLA has copied American practice by harnessing commercial technological innovation to military purposes.  Its 军民融合 or “military-civil fusion” program recognizes that market-driven research and development and university-led innovation frequently outpace in-house efforts by the military establishment.  As the United States did before it, China is linking industry and academia more closely to its national defense.  The pace at which China develops innovative military applications from civilian-developed technology now promises to accelerate. 

In response to U.S. military dominance of its periphery, China has invested in anti-ship, anti-air, counter-satellite, electronic warfare, and other capabilities to defend against a possible American attack.  Some Chinese weapons systems break new ground – among them terminally-guided ballistic missile systems to kill carriers, quantum communications devices, naval rail guns, and stealth-penetrating radar.  In the event of armed conflict, the PLA can now effectively block U.S. access to China’s near seas, including Taiwan. 

The PLA Navy has many more hulls than the United States, its ships are more modern, some of its weapons have greater range, and its home-based battlefield support is much closer to the potential war zone.  Chinese industry’s surge and conversion capacities now vastly exceed those of the United States.  In any future war with China, the U.S. armed forces cannot expect to enjoy the technological superiority, information dominance, peerless capacity to replenish losses, and security of bases and supply lines they have had in past wars.  

The strategic effects of the broadening and escalating antagonism between the United States and China have already been considerable.   Let me cite some examples.

  • It is dividing the world into competing technological ecospheres that are beginning to produce incompatible equipment and software, a reduction in globally traded goods and services, and an accelerated decline in American dominance of high-tech industries.
  • It is generating an active threat to the U.S. dollar’s seven-decade-long command of international trade settlement.  Increased use of other currencies menaces both the efficacy of U.S. sanctions and the continued exemption of the American economy from balance of trade and payments constraints that affect other countries.
  • It has distorted and possibly destroyed the global “rules-bound order” for trade, helping to proliferate sub-global, non-inclusive free trade areas and forcing the development of ad hoc rather than institutionalized multilateral trade dispute resolution mechanisms.
  • It is hampering global cooperation on planetwide problems like pandemics, climate change, environmental degradation, and nuclear non-proliferation.  (For a time, scapegoating of China served to divert attention from a pathetically ineffectual U.S. domestic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
  • It is pushing China and Russia into a broadening entente (limited partnership for limited purposes).  It may now be driving Iran into affiliation with this dyad.
  • It has helped to replace diplomacy with offensive bluster, blame games, and bullying that lower respect for both China and America in other countries, while imposing painful collateral damage on nations like Canada and Australia.
  • It has brought about an alarming rise in the danger of a war over Taiwan, while accelerating both conventional and nuclear arms races between China and the United States.

There is no sign that either side intends to change course.  Nine-in-ten U.S. adults are now hostile or ill-disposed toward China.  Chinese hostility to the United States has risen to comparable levels. 

To be sure, popular views are both ill-informed and fickle.  And at least as many things could go wrong as go right for both China and the United States.  The January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol is a reminder that scenarios that once seemed preposterous can yet occur.  Both China and the United States face internal as well as external challenges.  This is a moment of fragility in the life of both countries.  Game-changing events are not impossible to imagine.
In the near term, for example: 

  • A reversal of progress in countering the global pandemic could bring about a collapse in the global economy and lead to widespread unemployment and political unrest in both China and the United States.
  • The death of the Dalai Lama could destabilize Sino-Indian relations.  Beijing might find itself at war with New Delhi, which lusts to reverse its 1962 humiliation by the PLA, and which is once again aggressively probing the de facto border between the two countries.  A Chinese defeat in the Himalayas could catalyze a disruptive change in China’s leadership.  A victory could lead to Chinese strategic ebullience as well as Indian abandonment of nonalignment in favor of entente with the United States. 
  • A war in the Middle East or a crisis in Korea could challenge America while offering China an apparent opportunity to strike at Taiwan with relative impunity.
  • The emergence of less prudent leadership in Taipei could lead to decisions there that impel Beijing to invoke its 2005 anti-secession law and use force to recover Taiwan despite an expectation that the United States would intervene.
  • Other events involving Taiwan, such as a return of U.S. forces and installations to the island or the revelation of yet another Taiwanese nuclear weapons program, could trigger a Chinese use of force.
  • The division, disorder, demoralization, partisanship, political gridlock, and uncontrolled immigration now troubling the United States could force Washington to focus on restoring domestic social order at the expense of attention to foreign commitments.
  • The death or incapacitation of the top leader in either China or the United States could lead to disputes over succession that weaken government authority and decision-making, distracting and inviting miscalculation by one or the other side.

Of course, none of these things may happen, but the fact that they are not unimaginable underscores the shakiness of current strategic realities. 

In the somewhat longer term, still other developments could alter the course of the contest.  For example:

  • Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomacy and economic bullying may so thoroughly alienate other countries that, to the extent they can, they turn their backs on China and join the United States in opposing it.
  • Beijing’s obsession with political control could – not for the first time in China’s long history – suffocate its private sector and stifle innovation.
  • China’s semiconductor, artificial intelligence, and robotics companies will either succeed or fail in their drive to outperform their American, Taiwanese, and other competitors.  If they succeed, their competitors’ industries could be hollowed out and China could dominate cyberspace and related domains.  If they fail, China will fall behind.
  • Aging in China and a reversion to xenophobic immigration policies in the United States could reduce working-age populations, damage productivity, slow growth, and increase the welfare burden in either or both societies, forcing reductions in “defense” outlays and generating pressure for mutual disengagement from military confrontation.
  • Chinese and other experiments with digital currency trade settlement could dethrone the dollar from its post-World War II global hegemony, force the United States to bring its balance of payments and trade into equilibrium, lower U.S. living standards, and greatly reduce American international power.
  • Beijing’s brutal efforts to assimilate minorities to Han culture may not only fail but alienate Muslim and other foreign partners, while remaining a cause célèbre in the West, and empowering a broad international effort to ostracize China.
  • The cognitive dissonance between Washington and allied capitals about China and other issues could effectively gut America’s alliances, leaving the United States isolated in its hardline decoupling from China.
  • Japan might go nuclear, altering the calculus of deterrence in Northeast Asia, and enabling it to declare strategic autonomy from the United States without forgoing American non-nuclear protection.
  • The United States and the Russian Federation could replace their current mutual hostility with an entente directed at balancing and constraining Chinese power.
  • Climate change could not only inundate major Chinese and American coastal cities (like Shanghai and New York) but also lead to natural disasters like crop failures, super storms, floods, forest fires, and the devastating displacement of populations, leaving little enthusiasm and fewer resources in either country for competition with the other.
  • Conversely, disunity at home could lead demagogues in either China or the United States to rally patriotic support by pursuing aggressive policies abroad.
  • A failure to reforge mechanisms for international cooperation on public health issues could allow new pandemics to overwhelm national capacities to resist them.
  • The PLA Navy could match the U.S. Navy’s deployments along China’s coasts with its own deployments along America’s, deterring U.S. intervention in China’s near abroad while creating the preconditions for an agreement by which each side would pull some or all of its forces back to its own side of the Pacific.

Few or none of these game-changing developments may happen.  But they reveal the stakes both sides and the world at large have in finding ways to wind down the adversarial antagonism that has now gripped Sino-American relations.
Each side has come to see the other as the possible cause of its downfall.But each is actually more menaced by trends and events in its homeland than by what any foreign power might do to it.The position of each in the world depends more on how it conducts itself internationally than on how the other does.In a world in which power and influence are unevenly distributed not just between the U.S. and China but also among lesser players in world affairs,neither China nor the United States can expect to exercise unchecked dominance at either the regional or global level. China will not displace America from international primacy, but neither will America be able to retain primacy.

If China falters, it will not be because the United States has opposed it but because Beijing has adopted self-corroding policies and practices that obviate the successes of “reform and opening,” alienate foreign partners, and impair further progress.  Mao’s China was a failure in terms of returning China to wealth and power but laid the basis for Deng Xiaoping to set aside ideological rigidities and sponsor the eclectic adaptation of international best practices to Chinese circumstances.  Changes in Beijing’s domestic policies, the entrepreneurial energy these released, and the foreign relationships they enabled explain the differences between China from 1949 to 1979 and China from 1979 forward.  Policies can determine outcomes.

To develop, Beijing has declared, China needs a “peaceful international environment.”  It is bordered by 14 countries, four of which are nuclear-armed and four of which harbor unresolved territorial disputes with it.  Its civil war with recalcitrant forces on Taiwan has not concluded.  Japan and the United States, two countries with which China has been at war in still-living memory, are unreconciled to its renewed wealth and power.  These factors place China on the defensive and constrain any impulse on its part to project its power beyond its periphery.  To practice market Leninism successfully, China needs friends. 

Deportment helps determine friendships.  “Friends” are either (1) the rare comrades you would yield your own life to save and whom you expect would do the same for you; (2) partners who will go out of their way to do you a favor as you would for them; (3) companions whose presence you enjoy but with whom you share no real commitment; (4) sycophants who want something from you and strive to ingratiate themselves with you to get it; or (5) parasites who seek cunningly to exploit their association with you for their own interests without regard to yours. 

The Chinese people are widely admired abroad.  But there is no enthusiasm for either global or regional leadership by China’s government.  Others acknowledge its accomplishments, but few find it appealing.  As the Chinese phrase puts it, 笑里藏刀—their smiles conceal daggers.  Insincere attachments that rest on sycophancy or parasitism are flattering but do not embody respect and are neither reliable nor steadfast.  They can conceal disdain, create liabilities, and invite perfidy.

If China continues to allow its security services and diplomats to browbeat foreigners and treat other countries in the arrogantly abrasive and bullying manner it has recently adopted, the only international relationships it will have will be hypocritical, scheming, and untrustworthy.  Many abroad will fear China, but none will faithfully support it, few will follow it, and some will opt to oppose it.  China will “lose face.”  And, when “face” is at stake, China has a well-established record of irrational reactions that make it its own worst enemy.

Similarly, if the United States is eclipsed by China and “the rise of the rest,” it will be because Americans, mired in complacency, failed to adjust a once brilliantly successful system to address accumulated politico-economic problems and lay a basis for resumed advance.  China can neither compel America to reform nor stop it from doing so.  Americans alone can reaffirm their constitution, fix their broken politics, restore competence to their government, strengthen their society by reducing its economic and racial inequities, rejuvenate the competitiveness of their capitalism, abide by the norms of international conduct they seek to impose on others, respect international diversity and other countries’ sovereignty, and discard militarism in favor of diplomacy.

The ongoing slippage in U.S. prestige and followership internationally owes far more to self-disfiguring American domestic developments, strategic blunders, open contempt for allies and partners, sanctimoniously high-handed sanctioneering, offensively coercive foreign policies, and self-implemented diplomatic disarmament than it does to an imagined onslaught on the preexisting global order by China or others.  The Punch and Judy show put on by senior American and Chinese diplomats at Anchorage played well back home in both countries.  It did not inspire foreign confidence in the wisdom or capacity for empathy of either side.

China achieved much of its post-Mao developmental success by applying ideas learned from America.  In many respects, in the name of competing with China, the United States is now turning to copying elements of the resulting Chinese system.  Politicians in Washington are calling for industrial policies; major ramp-ups in spending on science and technology; the creation of specialized banks and funds dedicated to infrastructure investment; national security-derived protectionism, subsidies; and preferential licensing for key technologies and national champion companies; and what amounts to currency manipulation to produce a cheaper dollar.   

The United States also appears to be progressively adopting aspects of Beijing’s intolerant and intrusive definitions of political correctness and “national security,” even if Washington still leaves internet censorship and the manipulation of public opinion to corporate oligopolies rather than imposing government controls.  But there is no need to point this out to those attending this session of the Confucius Institute at the University of Idaho.  Some of you have personally experienced the “cancel culture” built into the latest round of Sinophobia in the United States.

American populism’s strategic dementia now competes with Chinese exceptionalism’s imperious demeanor.  To one degree or another, in both countries, groupthink has become the enemy of constructive engagement.  Each side’s resentment of its alleged past or current victimization at the hands of the other adds bitterness to the equation.  Only Beijing’s habitual risk aversion now averts a bloody U.S. rendezvous with Chinese nationalism in a war over Taiwan.

All things being equal, if there is no war over Taiwan or other game-changing event, current trends – American protectionism, decoupling from supply chains connected to China, and cognitive dissonance with allies and partners – seem more likely to continue than to halt.  This suggests a future in which:

  • China’s neighbors and the many dozens of countries participating in its Belt and Road Initiative draw steadily closer to Beijing economically and financially.  Brave talk notwithstanding, the United States no longer has the open markets, financial resources, or engineering capabilities to counter this.  Washington has shown no capacity to sustain the level of diplomatic engagement with the countries of the Indo-Pacific, Central Asia, East Africa, Russia, or EU members states needed to match Beijing.  It is failing to do so even in Latin America.  You can’t best something with nothing other than rhetoric and, for now, that’s effectively all the United States is offering.
  • As the division of the global market into separate trade and technological ecospheres proceeds, China will take the global lead in a widening list of consequential new technologies.  Its scientific and technological achievements will attract foreign investors and corporate collaborators regardless of their misgivings about China’s political system.  Where markets remain open to them, Chinese companies – state-owned and private – will compete successfully for market share with American, European, Japanese, and Korean companies.
  • The growth in Chinese power – combined with persistent concerns about erratic behavior by America’s wounded democracy – will cause major regional powers like India, Indonesia, and Japan to develop regional coalitions, defense industrial cooperation projects, and collaborative diplomacy designed to balance China — with or without the United States.
  • As its naval and air power expand, China will consolidate its military dominance of its periphery.  Americans will be forced to think twice about intervening to protect Taiwan from PLA coercion or controlling China’s near seas.  Armed clashes with the Chinese Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Forces are conceivable.  These could either undermine or stiffen American willingness to escalate hostilities with China.
  • The domestic and foreign purchasers of U.S. government debt could conclude that it is backed by little more than “modern monetary theory” and cease to buy it.  This alone would end the “exorbitant privilege” of the United States, deprive Washington of the ability to enforce unilateral sanctions, and make the American dominance of the Indo-Pacific economically unsustainable.
  • Taiwan’s increasing military vulnerability and dependence on mainland Chinese markets for its continued prosperity could compel it to negotiate a relationship with the rest of China sufficient to appease the demands of Chinese nationalism.  

China seems confident that some of these or similar scenarios will unfold in the decades to come.  Its strategic confidence and resolve contrast with a lack of similar conviction in America, where short-term cluelessness, enforced by fiscal fecklessness, still rules the day.  The challenges to American status and presuppositions from China are real.  They will not be overcome with fantasy foreign policies based on unrealistic assessments of current and future circumstances.

A deeply imbedded faith in liberal democratic ideology led some Americans to theorize that, given enough exposure to the United States, Chinese political culture would inevitably evolve into a version of America’s.  That this did not happen was not a failure of “engagement,” as American Sinophobes would have it.  China’s retention of its own authoritarian political culture reflects its system’s delivery of results that more than satisfied the material needs of the Chinese people while restoring their pride in their nation.  What’s happened in China may or may not disprove theories about the inevitability of political liberalization in middle-class societies.   This deserves reflection.   But so does the thesis that, without fundamental domestic reform, the United States can outcompete a China that is rising on its own terms, not America’s, in a world in which the United States no longer calls the shots.

The future of China will be made or unmade in China.  The future of the United States will be made or unmade in America.  Neither is foreordained.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs, Brown University

By video link from Washington, D.C, 15 April 2021

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