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ONE THING IS CERTAIN.
The geopolitical contest that has broken out between America and China will continue for the next decade or two. Although President Donald Trump launched the first round in 2018, it will outlast his administration. The president has divided America on all his policies, except one: his trade and technological war against China. Indeed, he has received strong bipartisan support for it, and a strong consensus is developing in the American body politic that China represents a threat to America. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.”* The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.”* Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat… and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.”* Even George Soros, who spent millions trying to prevent Trump from being elected, has praised Trump on China. He has said: “The greatest—and perhaps only—foreign policy accomplishment of the Trump administration has been the development of a coherent and genuinely bipartisan policy toward Xi Jinping’s China.”* He also added that it was right for the Trump administration to declare China “a strategic rival.”
Yet, even though the American establishment has, by and large, enthusiastically supported Trump on China, it is curious that no one has pointed out that America is making a big strategic mistake by launching this contest with China without first developing a comprehensive and global strategy to deal with China.
The man who alerted me to this was one of America’s greatest strategic thinkers, Dr. Henry Kissinger. I still remember vividly the one-on-one lunch I had with him in a private room in his club in midtown Manhattan in mid-March 2018. On the day of the lunch, I was afraid that it would be canceled as a snowstorm was predicted. Despite the weather warning, he turned up. We had a wonderful conversation over two hours. To be fair to him, he didn’t exactly say that America lacked a long-term strategy toward China, but that was the message he conveyed over lunch. This is also the big message of his own book, On China.
By contrast, America thought hard and deep before it plunged into the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The master strategist who formulated America’s successful containment strategy against the Soviet Union was George Kennan. The strategy was first publicly spelled out in the famous essay he wrote in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym Mr. X, derived from his “long telegram” written in February 1946. Kennan wrote this when he was serving in the critical post of director of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department, whose key mission is long-term strategic planning.
The director of policy planning in the State Department from September 2018 to August 2019 was Professor Kiron Skinner of Carnegie Mellon University. In a public panel discussion on April 29, 2019, she revealed that in response to the resurgence of China, her department was still trying to work out a comprehensive strategy to match the one spelled out by her predecessor, Kennan.
When I served in the Singapore Foreign Service, I was also assigned to write long-term strategy papers for the Singapore government. The big lesson I learned from Singapore’s three exceptional geopolitical masters (Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, and S. Rajaratnam) was that the first step to formulate any long-term strategy is to frame the right questions. If one gets the questions wrong, the answers will be wrong. Most importantly, as Rajaratnam taught me, in formulating such questions, one must always “think the unthinkable.”
In this spirit of “thinking the unthinkable,” I would like to suggest ten areas that provoke questions that the policy planning staff should address. Having met George Kennan once in his office in the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in the late 1990s, I believe that he would favor confronting head-on the toughest issues that lie ahead.
THE BIG TEN
1. With 4 percent of the world’s population, America’s share of the global GDP was close to 50 percent at the end of World War II. Throughout the Cold War, the GDP of the Soviet Union never came close in size to that of America, reaching only 40 percent that of America’s at its peak.* Could America’s GDP become smaller than China’s in the next thirty years? If so, what strategic changes will America have to make when it no longer is the world’s dominant economic power?
2. Should America’s primary goal be to improve the livelihood of its 330 million citizens or to preserve its primacy in the international system? If there are contradictions between the goals of preserving primacy and improving well-being, which should take priority?
3. In the Cold War, America’s heavy defense expenditures proved prudent as they forced the Soviet Union, a country with a smaller economy, to match America’s military expenses. In the end, this helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union. China learned a lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is restraining its defense expenditures while focusing on economic development. Is it wise for America to continue investing heavily in its defense budget? Or should it cut down its defense expenses and its involvement in expensive foreign wars and instead invest more in improving social services and rejuvenating national infrastructure? Does China want America to increase or reduce its defense expenditures?
4. America did not win the Cold War on its own. It formed solid alliances with its Western partners in NATO and cultivated key third world friends and allies, like China, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Egypt. To preserve these close alliances, America kept its economy open to its allies and generously extended its aid. Above everything else, America was known for its spirit of generosity in the Cold War. The Trump administration has announced an America First policy and threatened to impose tariffs on key allies like the EU and Japan and third world friends like India. Can America build up a solid global coalition to counterbalance China if it also alienates its key allies? Was America’s decision to walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a geopolitical gift to China? Has China already mounted a preemptive strike against a containment policy by engaging in new economic partnerships with its neighbors through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?
5. The most powerful weapon that America can use to bring its allies and adversaries into line and conform to its wishes is not the US military but the US dollar. The US dollar has become virtually indispensable for global trade and financial transactions. In this regard, it serves as a global public good servicing the interdependent global economy. Since foreign banks and institutions cannot avoid using it, America has been able to indulge in extraterritorial application of its domestic laws and impose huge fines on foreign banks for violating its domestic laws on trading with Iran and other sanctioned countries. American adversaries like North Korea and Iran were also forced to the negotiating table because of crippling financial sanctions. American sanctions on these countries worked best when they were supported and endorsed by multilateral institutions, like the UN Security Council, whose decisions are binding on UN member states. Under the Trump administration, America has switched from multilateral to unilateral sanctions and weaponized the dollar to use against its adversaries. Is it wise to weaponize a global public good and use it for unilateral ends? Right now, there are no practical alternatives to the US dollar. Will that always be the case? Is this the Achilles’ heel of the American economy that China can pierce and weaken?
6. In developing a strategy against the Soviet Union, Kennan emphasized that it was vital for Americans to “create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country” that was successful domestically and enjoyed a “spiritual vitality.”* Professor Joseph Nye described this as American soft power. From the 1960s to the 1980s, American soft power soared. Since 9/11, America has violated international law and international human rights conventions (and became the first Western country to reintroduce torture). American soft power has declined considerably, especially under Trump. Are the American people ready to make the sacrifices needed to enhance American soft power? Can America win the ideological battle against China if it is perceived to be a “normal” nation rather than an “exceptional” one?
7. General H. R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser from 2017 to 2018, has said that at the end of the day, the struggle between America and China represented the struggle between “free and open societies and closed authoritarian systems.”* If this statement is correct, all free and open societies should feel equally threatened by the Chinese Communist Party. Of the world’s three largest democracies, two are Asian: India and Indonesia. Neither the Indian nor Indonesian democracies feel threatened in any way by Chinese ideology. Neither do most European democracies feel threatened. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is not trying to challenge or threaten American ideology. By treating the new China challenge as akin to the old Soviet strategy, America is making the classic strategic mistake of fighting tomorrow’s war with yesterday’s strategies. Are American strategic thinkers capable of developing new analytical frameworks to capture the essence of the competition with China?
8. In any major geopolitical competition, the advantage always goes to the party that can remain rational and cool-headed over the party that is driven by emotions, conscious or unconscious. As Kennan wisely observed, that “loss of temper and self-control” is a sign of weakness. But are America’s responses to China driven by reason? Or by subconscious emotions? The Western psyche has long harbored a deep, unconscious fear of the “yellow peril.” Kiron Skinner pointed out that the contest with China was with a power that was “non-Caucasian.” In so doing, she put her finger on what is driving the emotional reactions to China. In the politically correct environment of Washington, DC, is it possible for any strategic thinker to suggest such a politically incorrect but truthful point without getting politically skewered?
9. Sun Tzu, one of China’s greatest strategic masters, once advised: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”* Does America know its Chinese rival? For example, is America making a fundamental error of perception when it views the CCP as a Chinese Communist Party? This would imply that the soul of the CCP is embedded in its communist roots. Yet, in the eyes of many objective Asian observers, the CCP actually functions as the “Chinese Civilization Party.” Its soul is not rooted in the foreign ideology of Marxism-Leninism but in the Chinese civilization. The most important job for a strategic thinker is to try to step into the mind of the adversary. So here’s a test: What percentage of a Chinese leader’s mind is preoccupied with Marxist-Leninist ideology and what percentage with the rich history of Chinese civilization? The answer would probably surprise many Americans.
10. Henry Kissinger in On China emphasized that Chinese strategy was guided by the Chinese game of wei qi (), not Western chess. In Western chess, the emphasis is on finding the fastest way to capture the king. In wei qi, the goal is to slowly and patiently build up assets to tip the balance of the game in one’s favor. The emphasis is on long-term strategy, not short-term gains. So is China slowly and patiently acquiring assets that are progressively turning the strategic game in China’s favor? Interestingly, America has made two major efforts to thwart two long-term moves by China to gain advantage. Both failed. The first was the Obama administration’s attempt to prevent its allies from joining the Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2014–2015. The second was the effort by the Trump administration to prevent its allies from participating in the Chinese-initiated BRI. Is America setting aside enough resources for the long-term competition? Does American society have the inherent strength and stamina to match China’s long-term game?
The goal of raising these questions is to stimulate a strategic debate, think the unthinkable, and dissect and understand the many complex dimensions of the US-China geopolitical contest that will unravel in the coming decade. One of the goals of this book is to promote hard-headed, rational thinking on an inevitably complex and shifting subject.
One fundamental question that any American strategic thinker must pose before plunging into a major geopolitical contest is one that gets at the scale of risk involved. In short, can America lose? The thought seems inconceivable. Both in physical and moral terms, America has long seen itself as the strongest nation. The American economy, and consequently its military, has been the strongest in the world for over a century. Its natural advantage of occupying a lightly populated and resource-rich continent, combined with the innovativeness and vigor of American institutions (especially its free markets, its rule of law, and its universities) and the American people, have convinced America that no nation can come close to its level of ingenuity and productivity.
In the moral dimension, to most Americans, the idea that a free and open society like America, the world’s strongest democracy, could lose a contest against a closed communist society like China is inconceivable. Americans are prone to believe that good always triumphs over evil and that no political system is inherently as good as the one envisaged by the founders of the republic. This may partially explain the increasing demonization of China in recent years. The more China is portrayed as an evil actor (especially in violating American expectations that China would progressively open up and become a democratic society as it engaged America), the easier it has become for Americans to persist in the belief that they would eventually triumph against China, no matter the odds.
America also prides itself on being a rational society. In many ways, it is. It is heir to the great story of Western civilization with its foundation in reason and logic. The scientific revolution that boosted Western civilization enabled its domination. With the advantage of a vibrant market, the strongest universities, and the most highly educated elites in the world, America assumed that no society could compete with it in the critical domains of economic and military strengths, intellectual ingenuity, and moral supremacy.
Americans also assumed that since they had the most open society on the planet, the various mechanisms of this open society would alert America if it took a major wrong turn. Sadly, this has not happened in recent decades. Most Americans are unaware that the average income of the bottom 50 percent of their population has declined over a thirty-year period.* This didn’t happen because of one wrong turn. As this book will document, America has turned away significantly from some of the key principles that defined social justice in American society. America’s greatest political and moral philosopher in recent times has been John Rawls. Through his works, he tried to distill the wisdom of the philosophy of the great European philosophers, which America’s Founding Fathers learned from. Unfortunately, many Americans are unaware how much they have turned away from some key founding principles.
Similarly, few Americans are aware that the world has changed in many critical dimensions since the heyday of American power in the 1950s. In 1950, in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms, America had 27.3 percent of the world’s GDP, while China had only 4.5 percent.* At the end of the Cold War, in 1990, a triumphant moment, America had 20.6 percent and China had 3.86 percent. As of 2018, it has 15 percent, less than China’s (18.6 percent).* In one crucial respect, America has already become number two. Few Americans are aware of this; fewer still have considered what it means.
Even more critically, the global context in which the US-China rivalry will be played out will be very different from that of the Cold War. The world has become a more complex place. It is clear that America remaining the preeminent world power, while not impossible, is going to become more and more unlikely unless America adapts to the new world that has emerged.
In the arena of civilizational dynamism, the world is returning to something like a historic balance among different human civilizations. For over two hundred years, Western civilization vastly outperformed the rest of the world, allowing it to overturn the historical precedent; from the year 1 to 1820, China and India were always the largest civilizations in terms of economic strength. The past two hundred years have therefore been an aberration.
One reason the West can no longer dominate the world is that the rest have learned so much from the West. They have imbibed many Western best practices in economics, politics, science, and technology. As a result, while many parts of Western civilization (especially Europe) seem exhausted, lacking drive and energy, other civilizations are just getting revved up. In this respect, human civilizations are like other living organisms. They have life cycles. Chinese civilization has had many ups and downs. It should be no surprise that it is now returning in strength. Having survived over two thousand years, China has developed strong civilizational sinews. Professor Wang Gungwu has observed that while the world has had many ancient civilizations, the only ancient civilization to fall down four times and rise again is China. As a civilization, China is remarkably resilient. The Chinese people are also remarkably talented. As the Chinese look back over two thousand years, they are acutely aware that the past thirty years under CCP rule have been the best thirty years that Chinese civilization has experienced since China was united by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BCE. For most of the past two thousand years, the large pool of brainpower available in the Chinese population was not developed under the imperial Chinese system. During the past thirty years, for the first time in Chinese history, it has been tapped on a massive scale. Cultural confidence, which the Chinese have had for centuries, combined with what China has learned from the West have given Chinese civilization a special vigor today. A Chinese American psychology researcher from Stanford University, Jean Fan, has observed after visiting China in 2019 that “China is changing in a deep and visceral way, and it is changing fast, in a way that is almost incomprehensible without seeing it in person. In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept, and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace—mostly for the better.”* If an index could measure the relative strength and resilience of different human civilizations based on their real performance over two thousand years, Chinese civilization might rank number one. The extraordinary vigor of Chinese civilization today is not unique. Other Asian civilizations are also thriving because the West has taught the world well and shared its example widely.*
I can confidently speak about the civilizational vigor of the many different societies in Asia as the result of an unusual cultural quirk. I have cultural connections with diverse societies in Asia, where half of humanity lives, all the way from Tehran to Tokyo. I was born to two Hindu Sindhi parents in Singapore in 1948. As a result, I am connected with over a billion Hindus in South Asia. Nine of the ten Southeast Asian states have an Indic cultural base too. When I see stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata—so much a part of my childhood—performed in Southeast Asia, I feel my connection to them. Over 550 million people live in this Southeast Asian Indic space. My parents left Pakistan in 1947 because of the painful partition between Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan. As a child, I learned to read and write the Sindhi language with its Perso-Arabic script. My name, Mahbubani, also comes from an Arabic-Persian word, mahboob, which means “beloved.” Hence, when I visit the Arabic or Iranian cultural spheres, I can also feel a cultural connection with them. When I visit Buddhist temples in China, Korea, and Japan, I can also feel the tug of cultural affinity. Buddhism, which has roots in Hinduism, originated in India. My mother would take me to pray in Buddhist temples, as well as Hindu temples, when I was young.
This personal connection with a remarkably wide range of Asian societies, as well as my ten years as an ambassador to the United Nations (UN), has convinced me that in the realm of international affairs, the texture and chemistry of the world have also changed in a way that most Americans are unaware of. One hundred ninety-three nation-states are members of the UN. One simple question we should ask is which country—China or the United States—is swimming in the same direction as the majority of the other 191?
Most Americans assume that America’s policies and aspirations abroad are naturally in harmony with the rest of the world, since America has provided leadership to the rest of the world for decades. After World War II, America did set the broad directions for the liberal international order (which should be more appropriately called the “rules-based international order”). The main global multilateral institutions, including the UN, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, were all created at the height of American power. They reflect American values. In terms of cultural identity, they are Western in orientation, not Asian or Chinese. Yet, despite the fact that they entrench Western values and priorities, in recent years America has been walking away from these institutions, while the rest of the world, especially China, has been walking toward them.
In short, it is far from certain that America will win the contest. China has as good a chance as America of emerging as the dominant influence in the world. In fact, many thoughtful leaders and observers in strategically sensitive countries around the world have begun making preparations for a world where China may become number one.
Yet, just as it has been a strategic mistake for American thinkers to take success for granted, it would be an equally colossal strategic mistake for China to assume the same. Despite the many advantages China has in size and civilizational resilience, it would be unwise for Chinese leaders to underestimate the underlying strengths of the American economy and society. China paid a price in recent years for becoming unwisely arrogant after the global financial crisis of 2008–2009 (which should more accurately be titled the Western financial crisis) rocked the Western economies. At the time of the Lehman Brothers crisis, the much-vaunted American financial system looked as though it was on the ropes. Unwisely, Chinese leaders began to make dismissive statements about America. Ten years later, America has bounced back.
Hence, if I were a senior Chinese leader advising President Xi Jinping, I would strongly urge Xi to overestimate rather than underestimate America’s strengths. And if I were asked to draft a memo to President Xi on America’s great strengths, I would write the following:
MEMO TO COMRADE XI JINPING: PREPARING FOR THE GREAT STRUGGLE WITH AMERICA
JANUARY 1, 2020
In twenty years, we will mark the two hundredth anniversary of the most humiliating period in China’s history. The people of China were forced by the British to accept opium as payment for our valuable tea. As Comrade Xi has said, “with the Opium War of 1840, China was plunged into the darkness of domestic turmoil and foreign aggression; its people, ravaged by war, saw their homeland torn apart and lived in poverty and despair.”* We were weak. We suffered a hundred years of humiliation until Chairman Mao said at the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China that “the Chinese people have stood up.”*
Today, we are strong. No power can humiliate China. We are well on the road to national rejuvenation. At the opening of the 19th National Congress of the CPC, Comrade Xi inspired us by reminding us that “the theme of the Congress is: Remain true to our original aspiration and keep our mission firmly in mind, hold high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era, and work tirelessly to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.”*
Yet we now also face the biggest challenge to China’s rejuvenation. We had hoped that the “beautiful country” (America) would continue to remain sleeping as China rose. Unfortunately, it has now woken up. We must prepare ourselves for the next few decades of intense struggle before we achieve our goal of national rejuvenation.
It would be a huge strategic mistake for us to underestimate the great strengths of America. The Chinese people fear chaos. It is the one force that in the past brought China to its knees and brought misery to the Chinese people. Clearly, America is suffering chaos now. President Donald Trump has been a polarizing and divisive figure. American society has never been as divided since the Civil War of 1861–1865.
Chaos should be a sign of weakness. Yet for America, it is a sign of strength. The chaos is a result of the people arguing loudly and vociferously over the direction that America should take. And the people argue loudly because they believe that they, not the government, are the owners of the country. This sense of ownership of the country creates a tremendous sense of individual empowerment among the American people. Chinese culture values social harmony over individual empowerment. American culture is the opposite.
This sense of individual empowerment has enabled American society to produce some of the most powerful individuals on planet earth. In many societies, the tall nail that stands out is hammered down. A Chinese saying is: “A tall tree catches the wind” (shù dà zhāo fēng
- Praise for Has China Won?
—Lawrence H. Summers is a former President of Harvard University and a former Treasury Secretary
—Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times
- On Sale
- Mar 31, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages