Can America Lose to China?
The real danger of the demonization of China is that it leads even thoughtful Americans to believe that an open society like America has many natural advantages over a closed autocratic system like China’s. By framing it in this way, Americans cannot even conceive of the possibility of losing out to China.
Here’s one statistic to ponder. In 2009, the size of China’s retail goods market was $1.8 trillion, when America’s was $4 trillion, more than double that of China’s. In 2019, after three years of former President Donald Trump’s economic assaults on China, China’s retail goods market had grown to $6 trillion, becoming bigger than that of America’s which had grown only to $5.5 trillion. A basic rule of strategy is that it’s a mistake to continue fighting on a front where one is losing. Step four would be to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement which former President Barack Obama had wisely initiated to ensure that the East Asian economic ecosystem, the largest one in the world, would not be centered on China. Step five would be to match the Chinese punch-for-punch by signing free trade agreements with every country or region that China has signed with. For example, one important arena for U.S.-China competition will be Southeast Asia, where there are still major reservoirs of goodwill towards America among its 700 million people. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) matters. In 2000, Japan’s combined gross national product was eight times larger than ASEAN’s combined GDP. By 2019, it was only 1.6 times larger. By 2030, ASEAN’s economy will be bigger than Japan’s. Hence, America should immediately sign a free trade agreement with ASEAN.
These five steps would terrify the Chinese. Suddenly, China would have to deal with a thoughtful and worthy geopolitical competitor. However, the Chinese need not worry. The sad truth is that not even one of those sensible and rational five steps is politically feasible within America. China is pursuing a carefully thought-out, long-term strategy that is both successful in improving the livelihood of 1.4 billion Chinese people and also successful in integrating China’s economy with most countries in the world, giving the world a stake in China’s prosperity. America doesn’t have a matching comprehensive strategy.
Here’s another statistic to reflect on. Brazil is geographically closer to America than China. In 2000, Brazil would take a year to export $1 billion to China. Now it does so every seventy-two hours. In contrast to the bottom fifty percent of the Chinese people, who have just experienced the best forty years of human development in four thousand years of Chinese history, the bottom 50 percent of America’s population has experienced three decades of economic stagnation, creating, as the Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton has documented, a “sea of despair” among the white working classes in America, leading to lower life expectancy, increased infant mortality, greater opioid addiction, higher suicide rates, and so on.
This is, probably, the most important point that American strategic planners should reflect on: at the end of the day, the outcome of the geopolitical contest between America and China will not be determined by the number of aircraft carriers or nuclear weapons. Instead, it will be determined by which society is doing a better job at taking care of its bottom fifty percent. As of now, China is leading by a mile, just as America was clearly in the lead against Soviet society in the Cold War. Indeed, the first indication that the Soviet Union was losing came from its human development statistics: lower life expectancy, increased infant mortality, greater alcohol addiction, higher suicide rates! Today, by contrast, as Stanford University psychologist Jean Fan has documented, “In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept, and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace – mostly for the better.”
There’s another important reason why America won the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It heeded the advice of one of its greatest strategic thinkers, George F. Kennan. Even though Kennan is remembered mostly for his “containment” policy (which wouldn’t work against a globally integrated power like China), he actually gave very thoughtful advice to his brethren. He emphasized that America’s standing in the world, relative to that of the Soviet Union, would depend on its ability to
create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.
There are four parts to this critical piece of advice: a country that knows what it wants (1), coping successfully with its internal problems (2) and global responsibilities (3), and which has a spiritual vitality (4). Vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, America was ahead on all four counts. Today, vis-à-vis China, America is behind on all four counts. The world was happy to hear Joe Biden say “America is back.” But for how long? One mistake that many American strategic planners and thinkers commit is to underestimate the rest of the world. Most observers of America know that Trump has at least an even chance to become president in 2024. Indeed, if Trump were to run against Kamala Harris in 2024, his chances of becoming president are more than even. If Trump becomes president again, he will once again withdraw from multilateral agreements and institutions (like the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization), disparage allies (like France and Germany) or ask them to pay more (like South Korea and Japan), withdraw H1B visas from friendly countries like India. Can any American stand up and say, with a straight face, that this will never happen again? And if Americans cannot say this with a straight face, isn’t it reasonable for most countries in the world to carefully hedge their bets in the competition between America and China?
The real contest between America and China will, therefore, not be fought out in any external arenas. It will be fought out in the heartlands of America. Biden’s main priority should be to eradicate the three decades of economic stagnation that have created a “sea of despair” among the white working classes. Only this will prevent the return of a Trump or a Trump-like figure. And only this will regenerate long-term confidence in Biden’s claim that “America is back.” All this leads to the final paradox: the best way to jumpstart the American economy is to work closely with the other strong and dynamic economies of the world, especially the country with the largest middle-class population of the world, namely China. If American policymaking was made by a sober, rational, thinking class of practitioners, this would be a logical, indeed commonsensical, solution to America’s serious internal divisions.
YET THIS commonsensical solution seems to be null and void in America’s current political contest. During the election campaign, Biden explicitly said that the trade war against China hadn’t worked. He said that Trump’s trade war with China was “an unmitigated disaster” that cost Americans money and jobs! Fareed Zakaria says Biden was right when he said this. Yet, Biden would be crucified politically if he were to lift trade sanctions against China that have harmed American businesses and farmers. The Biden administration will need strong political cover if it wants to rebalance relations with China and strive to achieve a more normal relationship with China, devoid of self-defeating tariffs and sanctions. There is one resource that the Biden administration can use: the opinions of the rest of the world. Indeed, the U.S. Declaration of Independence said explicitly that the United States of America should show a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Kennan’s wise advice, stated above, also emphasized that America should be mindful of the impression that America creates “among the peoples of the world.”
Indeed, one key reason why America won the Cold War against the Soviet Union is that the causes it championed, especially causes in the international arena, enjoyed the broad support of the peoples of the world. I myself witnessed this. After the Soviet-supported Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the United Nations (un) General Assembly, which is the only body in the world which represents all 7.8 billion people of the world, would consistently vote to condemn and reject these invasions. When I served as Singapore’s ambassador to the UN from 1984 to 1989, I worked closely with distinguished American ambassadors like Vernon Walters and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick to ensure that out of 193 member states of the UN, almost 150 member states would support American-inspired resolutions against the Soviet Union. This proved empirically that most “peoples of the world” supported America over the Soviet Union.
America can now use the same empirical test to see whether the “peoples of the world” support America over China. Unfortunately, unlike the Soviet Union, China has not invaded or occupied any neighboring state. Indeed, among all the major powers, China is the only one that has not fought a major war in over forty years. Nonetheless, America has accused China of behaving “aggressively” in three territories: Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. The issues involved in each of the three are different. Indeed, they are complex. However, most American commentaries make a simple black and white case that China’s actions in these three territories are wrong and, as a result, the “world” disapproves of China’s actions in these areas. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that,