Does the Century Have to Belong to China?

Does the Century Have to Belong to China?

China is racing ahead in these areas: science, technology, engineering, and math.

SourceVisual China Group/Getty

Why you should care

Yes, Beijing is becoming a global economic powerhouse, but the U.S. can share that stage.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

There is no way to prevent China from becoming the world’s largest economy. This is not my conclusion. It belongs to one of America’s most respected economists, former Clinton administration Treasury Secretary and Harvard President Lawrence Summers, and I have no reason to doubt it. But hearing it got me thinking again about our strategy toward China — and mainly, whether we are preparing our foreign policy tool kit for the special challenges of operating in the world that Summers predicts.

It’s no secret that China is a rising power. But there is a reassuring school of thought that the U.S. retains certain advantages likely to continue giving us an edge in global competition. We are blessed with abundant natural resources, a strong education system, an attractive culture, innovative entrepreneurs and favorable demographics (unlike China’s aging population). Moreover, China is struggling to free its economy from dependence on cheap exports, and it angers most of its trading partners with intellectual property theft, hacking episodes, limiting the rights of foreign investors and subsidizing its large state industries to the disadvantage of competitors.

But Summers’ argument is that even if China had followed all the rules we like and came into line with international economic norms, it would not alter its growth rate by much, maybe 1 percent. Likewise, he contends that unfair Chinese trade practices have had only a tiny impact on U.S. growth, at most 0.1 percent.

So Summers is urging us to start imagining a world in which, by 2050, our economy is only half the size of China’s.

China is struggling to free its economy from dependence on cheap exports, and it angers most of its trading partners …

I believe this will require a different way of thinking about the world and our engagement with it — perhaps reinvigorating some old practices while also embarking on new ones. Our first impulse is usually to pump up our military capability. We should enhance it, but one thing is clear: We will no longer be able to spend our way to superiority. Military modernization is a necessary but insufficient step.

From a long list of other things worth considering, I’d prioritize three:

First, we have to think about what multiplies our influence and power. In that category, nothing beats alliances based on shared values and interests. This plays to our “soft power” advantage and responds to a widespread nostalgia for U.S. leadership (often criticized until exercised less fervently). This, of course, is the opposite direction of today’s American foreign policy, which has generally favored unilateral action over multilateral.

Such alliances need not and should not be cast as anti-Chinese, even though at the moment there is once again a broadly shared belief in Washington that China is determined to undercut us. Beijing has fed this view with its pervasive espionage and its military buildup. But as we work our way through this, we should stay alert to ways to shift the direction of bilateral relations.

One such gambit would be to seek diplomatically something that would take time and patience and, frankly, have low odds of success — a three- or four-way partnership among the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea. In truth, these countries share many interests, but history weighs heavily against cooperation. China, especially, would be suspicious and initially reject the idea — but it would be another way to call Beijing’s bluff about being a “responsible stakeholder.” And if we could bring it off, it would change history.

Second, we should start adapting strategy and tactics to compete more successfully in the “gray” zones between diplomacy and military power, where today countries like China and Russia challenge us with asymmetric tactics. Lacking our raw power, they have proven more adept at combining conventional tactics, special operations, diplomacy, covert action, cyber, psyops and deception to throw us off balance, inflict surprise and complicate our decision-making.

Being big and powerful has caused us often to disdain such tactics as tools of the weak. Lately though, they have become tools of the smart (Putin in Syria, for example).

Third, we should up our game on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. China is racing ahead in these areas, especially in the fields that will drive the 21st century. Last century belonged to physics and engineering (air power, nuclear energy, and such). This century will belong, at least for the near future, to information technology, biotech, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence — and the integration of these. This will affect every aspect of power open to human development and manipulation. Right now, China may not be the most innovative, but it is the least inhibited by social norms and government regulation. And it possesses the vast data sets, many acquired through espionage, that enable progress in these fields.

So while a growth in China’s economy and power seems inevitable, it is by no means inevitable that Beijing displaces the U.S. in global leadership and influence — provided we start now to adapt our strategy and tactics to the new realities that a burgeoning China will present.


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