Recognition of the magnitude of the challenge posed by what Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew presciently predicted would be “the biggest player in the history of the world,” is the beginning of wisdom. We believe it should—and will—lead the United States to mobilize a response proportionate to the challenge.
As the United States and China compete neck-and-neck in the Tokyo Games, the head of China’s General Administration of Sports, Gou Zhongwen, has made no secret of China’s goal. As he put it recently: the Tokyo and Beijing Games are stepping stones on the path to China’s becoming a global “sports power by 2035.” In pursuit of this mission, China sent its biggest-ever team to Tokyo with 777 athletes to America’s 621. Nonetheless, as she arrived in Tokyo, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee declared: “Team USA is ready” for everything. In sum, the game is on.
Americans have never shrunk from competition. Indeed, our market economy and democracy are founded on the proposition that fair competition will spur the rivals to run faster than they would do running alone. But for students of war and peace, the big question is: in the great geopolitical rivalry, can the United States and China can find a way to structure and manage constructive competition? Can the necessity for coexistence drive enlightened leaders to engage in peaceful competition in which each nation does its best to demonstrate which system—America’s democracy, or China’s Party-led autocracy—can deliver more of what human beings want? Since citizens’ lives in both countries depend on an affirmative answer, we must hope and pray that they can find their way to yes.
Graham T. Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the former director of Harvard’s Belfer Center and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?