Can America Lose to China?

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.

The United States Congress has always spoken with one voice in defense of those oppressed by Beijing and in support of freedom, justice and real autonomy for the people of Hong Kong. We call on all freedom-loving people around the world to join us in denouncing this unjust sentencing and China’s widespread assault on Hong Kongers.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said in a statement that China’s actions pertaining to Xinjiang “only contribute to the growing international scrutiny of the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. We stand in solidarity with Canada, the UK, the EU, and other partners and allies around the world in calling on [China] to end the human rights violations and abuses.” Both Pelosi and Blinken used the word “world” to suggest that the international community also condemned China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Whenever any American uses the phrase which suggests the “world disapproves of China,” they should say privately to themselves this phrase: “1.5 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus, 1.4 billion Africans, 600 million Latin Americans, 500 million Buddhists (or the vast majority of the world’s population) disapproves of China’s actions. By using this phrase, instead of “the world,” they would see clearly that they have made an empirically false statement. Most countries in the world do not support American criticisms of China in either Hong Kong or Xinjiang. As indicated above, there is an empirically verifiable way for America to determine whether the “world” supports American criticism of China’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or Taiwan. America could table a resolution on any of three issues in the UN General Assembly. If it were to do so, America would find itself in the same situation as the Soviet Union in the Cold War. It would struggle to get thirty to forty countries out of 193 countries to support its point of view.

Indeed, America has carried out this empirical test on Xinjiang. Together with a group of twenty-three mainly Western countries, it issued a statement condemning human rights violations in Xinjiang. The statement said that there were “mass detention, efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices, mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs, and other human rights violations and abuses in the region.” In short, China was accused of suppressing its Muslims. In theory, if China was suppressing its Muslims, the most outraged community would be the fifty-seven countries that are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Yet not one Muslim country supported America or the West on Xinjiang. In response to the statement by the twenty-three countries condemning China, fifty-four countries backed a counter-statement defending China’s actions in Xinjiang.

Many Americans may console themselves with the fact that this was a noble contest between “freedom-loving democracies” and “autocratic Muslim states.” Yet, the two largest democracies in the world, apart from America, are India (1.3 billion people) and Indonesia (280 million people). Neither supported America on Xinjiang. The 1.6 billion people who live in India and Indonesia make up twice the population of all Western countries combined.

The real issue here is not the merits of the case on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. The real issue is the stark difference between America’s standing in the world vis-à-vis its primary competitor in the Cold War, namely the Soviet Union, and its standing in the world vis-à-vis China. During the Cold War, most countries, indeed most peoples of the world, supported America against the Soviet Union. Today, by contrast, most want to remain neutral in this major geopolitical contest between America and China. Most countries want to have good relations with America. Yet most countries also want to have good relations with China. Hence, if any American administration, driven by domestic political pressures, steps up its geopolitical contest with China, it will find itself relatively isolated internationally. Few countries would enthusiastically support America in this contest.

The European countries, especially France and Germany, are among America’s closest allies. Yet they too will be ambivalent about joining any American crusade against China, even though they share some American concerns about China’s behavior. At the end of the day, countries have to pay attention to their national interests. China is now a bigger trading partner for Europe than America is. In 2020, total EU trade with China was $709 billion and $671 billion with America. Ten years from now, this gap will widen. Equally importantly, the real long-term strategic nightmare for Europe is no longer Russian tanks. It’s the demographic explosion in Africa, especially since Africa’s population will be ten times larger than Europe’s by 2100. If geopolitics is also about geography, China’s investment in Africa is a geopolitical gift to Europe as it reduces African migration to Europe. An old adage says that one should not look a gift horse in the mouth.

European and American interests also diverge on Iran. This is why the Europeans didn’t leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action when Trump did. Iran also demonstrates how China plays a long-term game of chess (or more accurately, the Chinese game of wei qi) while America plays checkers. Why did China sign a twenty-five-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement with Iran in March 2021? One credible answer is that China is retaliating against America because it is crossing a “red line” in the Sino-American relationship; America is quietly walking away from the “One-China policy” that has underpinned the relationship for almost fifty years. Indeed, exactly fifty years ago, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited China. He raised many issues with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou Enlai only raised one: Taiwan. Why? Americans have forgotten the century of humiliation China suffered from 1842 to 1949. The Chinese haven’t. The separation of Taiwan from the homeland represents the last living legacy of this century of humiliation. Any Chinese leader, even Xi Jinping, who appears soft on Taiwan will be removed.

Hence, it would be foolhardy for any Chinese leader not to work out extreme options if America walks away any further from the One China policy. China will look for a suitable “Achilles’ heel” in America. As I document in my book, Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, the role of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency is one area of vulnerability. This issue is complicated. Yet there’s no doubt that America’s standing in the world will fall sharply if the U.S. dollar loses its global reserve currency status.

Many Americans will not be daunted by this prospect. Since many Americans tend to have a black and white view of the world, where they believe they represent right over wrong, or good over evil, they will console themselves by saying that America is carrying out a noble global mission of defending freedom, democracy, and human rights against an evil, authoritarian, despotic regime, which is oppressing its own people. Even if America has to stand alone in this fight, it will not give up. Ultimately, America will triumph in its noble mission of defeating another evil communist empire. 

This brief representation may seem to be a caricature of American views. However, it’s not unfair in suggesting that many Americans, including thoughtful Americans, have a black and white view of the relationships between America and China. Former President Ronald Reagan captured well American sentiments when he described the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” It will not be long before China becomes equally stigmatized as another “evil empire.”

IF AMERICANS fall into this groove of developing a black and white contrast between America and China, they will find that unlike in the Cold War, it will be America that will appear isolated, not China. This does not mean that the rest of the world has an overwhelmingly positive view of China. All the global surveys that show rising apprehensions about China’s rise are accurate. Whenever a new power bursts into the international community, it would be perfectly reasonable for the international community to be apprehensive. Indeed, some actions taken by China, including its assertive moves in the South China Sea, have raised serious concerns. 

Yet most countries in the world just see China for what it is: a normal country. It’s working hard to improve the livelihood of its people, and succeeding spectacularly in this regard. It’s cooperating normally with most countries in the world. International trade is completely voluntary. No country can be forced to export or import goods. Hence, when over 130 countries in the world choose to trade more with China than America, they are sending the strongest possible signal that they believe that China is just a normal country, neither good nor evil. 

At the same time, it is also true that respect for China is growing among most countries in the world. Americans may wish to dismiss these growing signals of respect for China just as opportunistic moves by countries that just want to benefit from the Chinese economy. Before falling into a smug attitude of moral superiority, Americans should consider the possibility that the rest of the world is capable of arriving at a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of China. Hence, they can see that China is delivering many global public goods that have benefitted the international community. The first global public good is to restrain the strong nationalistic dragon within the Chinese body politic. This is why China in 2021 is not behaving as Theodore Roosevelt did in 1899. The second global public good is to be a rational and responsible actor in response to global challenges, like climate change and COVID-19. Here’s one small fact that most Americans are not aware of: COVID-19 has significantly raised China’s stature in the world and diminished America’s. The third is to behave like a “status quo” power, rather than as a “revolutionary power.” Blinken was absolutely right when he said that “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.” Yet, even as China has become more powerful, it continues to embrace the Western-originated, rules-based order generated by the UN Charter and the UN family of institutions. Anyone who doubts this should read the UN Charter again. Its principles support China.