This was (another) faint echo of the McCarthy Era’s debate about who in the US government “lost China.” The same arrogance of embedded and stale hegemony as 70 years ago; as if China was “ours” to lose then and China’s rise in the past 40 years is ours to stop now.
Countries rise and fall, as I (and Paul Kennedy) have pointed out before. As often, a country rises (i.e. gains global military/economic/cultural power) even while another country rises even more and it appears that Country A is falling. Power (which includes the perception of power) is relative. [There’s probably a good line here about “absolute power is absolutely relative;” but I won’t go there!] That’s certainly the case with the US and China these days, even discounting whatever absolute decline was wrought by Trump’s flailing melodrama of a foreign policy.
Kennedy showed that there is a pattern in which great powers either get “fat-and-happy” or over-extended in their commitments. Leadership is hard, competition is tough at the championship level, in football or geopolitics. So, there is no surprise that the “American Century” might well be over.
The question is what, if anything, to do about it. Too often, historically speaking, the relative decliner is too lazy or frustrated and starts a war. It seems that this was the road (at least in terms of trade and economics) down which Trump was headed and which Rubio is claiming in his proto-Presidential positioning.
Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1914 were certainly in this position; fearing the growth and potential industrialization of Russia. Similar arguments could be made for Germany and Japan in the late ‘30s, vis-à-vis both the US and Russia. One could even make the case that this was the situation faced by the Southern states as they joined the Confederacy in 1861. The idea is that even though war is a crapshoot, the broader geopolitical and demographic trends are so ominous, that war looks like the less bad alternative. However, since humans are slow on the uptake, the decision in favor of conflict usually comes so far along in the process that the apparently falling power is too late to overcome the long-term trends and, after some initial success, succumbs to the long-term rising power. See, e.g., German vs. British or American war plane production in the 1940s or German (1917) or Japanese (1941) sneak attacks triggering US entry into WWI/WWII.
In our case, the long-term rise of China is neither surprising, nor under-explained. However, having gotten used to being the only dog on the top of the heap after the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, we just don’t like it. That power vacuum has not been filled (and neither Russia, India, or the European Union is capable of filling it). China’s aggressive foreign policy, built on a huge upturn in its economic and technological capabilities is the result. It is driven not only by capabilities, but also by a national mythology of being Chung Kuo (the “Middle Kingdom”), around which all other countries/barbarians would align themselves. It shows up in trade, in intellectual property theft, in territorial claims in India, Bhutan, Vietnam, and the South China Sea, and in its well-funded economic diplomacy across the global south. It shows up in China’s swift and effective (if heavy-handed) handling of the Coronavirus outbreak. Nothing made the Soviet Union look so good in the 1930s (hidden oppression and famines notwithstanding) as the liberal democracies’ struggle with the Great Depression.
And so, America, after the hand-wringing and Trumpian foot-stomping, what is to be done?
I’m certainly not suggesting that we “go quietly,” kow-tow, and brush up on our Mandarin. Nor will a national boycott of Kung-Pao chicken cut it. Perhaps we could rename fortune cookies as “freedom cookies,” since that worked so well against “French fries” in 2003.
Certainly a more assertive stance against the Chinese is called for in terms of trade relations. Certainly a more resolute stance in favor of human rights of the many ethnic minorities (Uighurs, Tibetans, etc.) would be appropriate; hopefully, in coordination with the EU. Certainly mobilizing South and South-east Asian countries in common causes (economic and territorial) is overdue.
Having said that, we’re also certainly not going to war if China invades Taiwan or completes its dissolution/assimilation of Hong Kong. The nihilism shared by Southern slaveowners and Kaiser Wilhelm II was bad enough, but in a nuclear age, it’s nonsense.
Actually, to use a sports metaphor, the best defense against global “decline” is a good offense. We have a lot to say and do with countries around the world where Chinese have been liberally and often clumsily strewing their cash and ideas. More importantly in terms of democracy and trade, if we want to be competitive, we have to compete!
We also have to be realistic. Just wanting China to act like a 2d tier power isn’t going to make it happen. They’re not. Bringing rocks back from the far side of the Moon shows some serious techno-chops. As much as power determines things in the world, they have more of it than they used to and, in that sense, are entitled to have the world look a bit more like they want it to.
But both the effort implied in a “good offense” and the maturity implied in realism will take some real work and some changes in our outlook: a bit less global entitlement and self-righteousness; a bit more teaming (compromising) to gain alliances. We also need to take care not to let competitiveness overwhelm us as often happened during the “Cold War” where we turned too many blind eyes towards behavior in competed-for countries (e.g., Argentina, Congo, Iran) for anyone’s good.
China is a rising power (absolutely). The US is therefore, in relative decline (however much we may still be the envy of the vast majority of the world). Whining won’t work, Mario, even if it gets you some votes.